Wednesday, November 27, 2019

CONSUMPTION AS IDENTITY: Movies, Fandom, & Critical Thinking

“Criticism is the only thing that stands between the audience and advertising.” 
Pauline Kael 

I love watching movies. A claim that until recently also meant I love going to the movies. But as I've grown older, I’m afraid the whole communal experience thing has begun to lose some of its appeal for me. Which is really too bad, timing-wise, since moviegoing has never been more user-friendly and tailored for customer satisfaction. Take, for example, those new-fangled, high-backed, individual armrest w/cupholder, semi-reclining stadium seats designed to accommodate the plush expanses of the American Big Gulp/Super-Size derrière.
Or the more-democratic return of reserved seating, which, in my day, was exclusively a roadshow luxury afforded the elite (i.e., folks with social calendars and reliable babysitters). Concession stands, once just a place to buy popcorn, over-carbonated beverages, and DOTS™ candies to strew in the aisles for other patrons to step on; now offer a veritable food truck variety menu. And in many theaters, a real, live person comes out just before the film starts to remind patrons to turn off their phones--just like in the days of the silents when title cards reminded ladies to please remove their hats.
But over the years I’ve accepted the fact (my partner would say "embraced" is more like it) that I’ve become far too crabby and curmudgeonly for these tantalizing innovations in movie exhibition to exert much influence over my resistance to seeing films with an audience. In whatever graveyard one might find buried the ornate movie palaces of old...those with uniformed ushers and $1 souvenir programs; sneak previews that were actually a surprise; or double-features and open admission policies...there is where you’re likely to find what once made seeing movies in theaters so much fun for me: a youthful disinterest in monitoring the behavior of others.
On the other hand, what hasn’t changed a bit over the years is how much I love to talk about movies. When I was young, Saturdays meant my three sisters and I would spend entire afternoons at the local movie theater immersing ourselves in colorful worlds and lives far different from our own. Our method of prolonging the experience and making the movies last until the following Saturday—when, more than likely, we'd see the same exact double-bill again—would be to engage one another in conversation about the movies we’d just seen. In exhaustive, expansive detail.
The necessity of having to sit together in silence for long stretches of time in a dark theater (we were far too strictly brought up to be the kind of kids who talked during a movie), meant that once the screening was over, we'd be fairly bursting with all we'd been storing up to talk about. Thus, no afternoon at the movies ever felt complete without the accompanying animated conversations we'd have on the bus ride home. We’d talk about the plot, which performances we liked, recount favorite scenes, recite passages of dialogue, and share with one another our varied, seldom intersecting, opinions on what we thought of the movie overall.
Due to there being so many of us, each having our own unique take on the same movie, I came to understand then what has remained true for me ever since: when someone shares their thoughts about a movie...their personal response to it, their critiques, their likes and dislikes...movies are so subjective, what is being relayed always reveals more about the individual speaking than it does about the film itself.
Unless talking about a film's aspect ratio or running time, little about movie discourse is ever objective. Claims of a film being either "good" or "bad"--even when those claims are from esteemed sources---are not statements of fact. Talking movies is an exercise in subjective observation, personal tastes, and individual aesthetics. But listening to an individual share their thoughts on a film not only affords an opportunity to learn something about the particular person; it also allows for the chance to experience a film from a fresh perspective. An experience that can call our attention to things we might not otherwise have noticed.

"It is an impressively arrogant move to conclude that just because you don’t like something, it is empirically not good."   - Tina Fey 

Going to the Movies: Communal Act / Private Experience

My sisters and I were pretty good about not letting our differences of opinion get in the way, but that's not to say all was smooth sailing. Anyone with siblings will tell you that disagreeing on things—make that, everything—is a fact of life. The only reason our weekend post-movie confabs didn't habitually end in reenactments of that ladies' room scene in Valley of the Dolls is through the honing of certain skills. Each of us had to learn the fundamentals of tact, debate, listening, and not being judgmental when it came to other people's tastes. And let's not forget the all-important, knowing when to keep one’s yap shut.
Take, for instance, the time I managed to look both supportive and straight-faced while my eldest sister, after taking us to see The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night (1964) for what must have been the 6th consecutive time, explained at length why George Harrison (his being “the quiet one” and all), never got as much attention as the others, and was, therefore, the only member of the Fab Four deserving of her lifelong devotion. 
Curious George: George Harrison in A Hard Day's Night (1964)

And if a similar familial diplomacy was responsible for the peaceable resolution to a starchy standoff between me and another sister over the relative merits of Debbie Reynolds’ eager-to-please performance in 1964s The Unsinkable Molly Brown (she was pro, I was con); I credit my preteen Spidey-senses for knowing I'd be saving myself a lot of grief by waxing enthusiastically about the beauty and talent of up-and-comer Faye Dunaway in The Happening (1967) rather than gushing the sentiment I really wanted to express: that for the entire film I couldn't take my eyes off of co-star George Maharis.
Gorgeous George: George Maharis in The Happening (1967)

Our tradition of after-movie chat sessions continued well into our teens. Rather a remarkable feat, given the closeness of our ages and the way puberty plays the dirty hormonal trick of ratcheting up adolescent hypersensitivity at the very same time it kicks teenage know-it-all-ism (typified by the frequent, unchecked volunteering of inflexible opinions) into overdrive.
But as our individual personalities began to emerge and our tastes grew more disparate and self-defining, the biggest change I noticed was that while my sisters continued to enjoy movies in much the same way they always had; I'd graduated on to something that fell geekily between enthusiastic interest and all-consuming passion. Gradually, as I began to self-identify more and more as a movie buff and film enthusiast, my contributions to our post-movie discussions took on a decided air...much of it hot.
Alas, I was almost always "that guy" in the movie line.

The Funicello Fracas
To give you an idea of the kind of hurdles that had to be surmounted before my sisters and I were ultimately able to hammer out an honest, mutually respectful way of sharing our differing tastes in movies and pop culture, I offer up this case history: When I was but a wee lad, I harbored a latent crush on Annette Funicello in reruns of The Mickey Mouse Club on TV.
I was equally closeted in my infatuation with Frank Converse on Coronet Blue and Richard Chamberlain on Dr. Kildaire at the time, but I guess my sisters picked up on something they saw in my eyes each time Annette adorably dropped her chin and spelled out "...K-E-Y" during the Mouseketeer sign-off. Whatever it is they saw, it launched them on a merciless campaign of teasing me about it that lasted for several days. The more they teased, the louder and more fervent came my false denials, until one day I broke down in tears and barricaded myself in my room.
The Mouse-Eared Troublemaker
Teasing wasn't anything new between us, but any of us being responsible for making the other cry was a definite no-no. So my sisters' way of apologizing and remedying the situation was to take crayon to construction paper and hastily fashion signs emblazoned with slogans declaring “Kenny Doesn’t Like Annette!” and “Kenny says NO to Annette!" and then march back and forth in front of my bedroom door as though participating in the world's smallest, least consequential protest demonstration.
In what would be her final film for AIP, the studio behind all those Beach Party movies, Annette Funicello co-starred with pop star Fabian in Thunder Alley (1967). A racing car drama in which the former Mouseketeer fends off a date rapist and gets to play her first drunk scene

I’d like to say this was the last time my sisters ever teased me, but that would be a lie. But it WAS the first and last time any of us ever teased the other with the intention of making them feel small because of their personal tastes.
In fact, some years later, it occasioned we all went to a double-feature, the bottom half of which was a low-budget race car drama titled Thunder Alley (1967), starring a considerably more mature Annette. And although it was clear that I was the only one enjoying it (being that my secret love was no secret anymore), when I sheepishly asked if we could PLEASE stay to see it a second time, my siblings readily consented, with nary a smirk, jibe, or rolled eye between them. I like to think I paid back my debt of gratitude when, not long after during their Clint Eastwood phase, I managed to stay awake, non-protesting through two screenings of Paint Your Wagon.
As we grew older and Saturdays changed to going to the movies with friends instead of family (in my case, friends for whom "That was good!" or "What a piece of shit!"  represented all that needed to be said about any given movie), I took to filling the film critique void with trips to the library. The late '60s and '70s were the absolute heyday of film journalism, so it was there where I'd lose myself in books and magazines devoted to cinema essays and film analyses by my favorites: Pauline Kael, Peter Bogdanovich, Stanley Kauffmann, Andrew Sarris, and John Simon. That I didn't always agree with their opinions was never the point. It was my love of movies that kept me at the table. 
Most eye-opening for me was how these writers balanced respect for the emotional persuasiveness of film while still applying critical thinking to what they deemed to be a movie's flaws and merits. The objective was not to tear movies down or spoil anyone's fun, merely a belief that films had both the potential and responsibility to be better: better entertainment, better art. These writers taught me how to look at film and evaluate cinema in ways that extended beyond the purely sensate. Suddenly, how a movie made me think came to be as important to me as how a movie made me feel.

"The unexamined film is not worth seeing."  - A film buff's take on the Socrates quote

After years of being regarded as a purely escapist entertainment medium,
the serious and thoughtful critical evaluation of film seemed to be everywhere.

If those years spent watching movies on weekends and reading about movies during the weekdays represent the Appreciation & Evaluation stage of my love affair with film, then high school brought me to my Identification & Proprietary phase. As a Black, gay adolescent forging an identity for myself while attending an all-boys Catholic school while living in a predominantly white neighborhood; movies provided me with escape, motivation, and emotional catharsis. Relating on deeply personal levels to the movies I consumed, I found in the films of (significantly, but not exclusively) Robert Altman, Ken Russell, and Roman Polanski…inspiration and a dream of—if not entirely the person I was at the time—then most certainly the person I wanted to become.
Being neither a jock nor a joiner, I was largely invisible during my freshman year, but due to always having my nose buried in a book about movies, by sophomore year I was known around campus as The Movie Guy. A label that stuck and an image I enthusiastically cultivated for the entirety of my years at St. Mary's.
This pseudo-notoriety led to my participation in such geeky extracurricular pursuits as writing movie reviews for the school paper and posting fan-art movie posters in the library. It also led to my getting to meet the other movie buffs (a.k.a., the other gay kids) at school. And while it was great to find individuals with whom I could again talk movies...this time with guys who (to say the least) shared a similar enthusiasm; I gotta also say that I was less than thrilled that it also occasioned my first face-to-face encounter with blinkered fandom and the vociferously proprietary side of celebrity worship.
The fundamentally solitary, insular nature of being a film fan (It's not a team sport. It's essentially a person's internal relationship with the flickering images on a screen) doesn't easily lend itself to open-forum discourse under the best of circumstances. Much less socially-awkward adolescents in the first hormonal flushes of pop-culture infatuation and film-based cultural identity attachment.

Since this was more than a decade before Siskel & Ebert at the Movies demonstrated that even erudite middle-aged men were not above resorting to ad hominem attacks when in disagreement, I blamed it on our youth when nearly every movie discussion our group had splintered off into white-knighting protectiveness (only sycophantic praise allowed, critique not tolerated); proprietary elitism (no one loves their favorite as much as they); and emotional defensiveness (subjective criticisms of a favorite film or celebrity was perceived as a personal attack). Where were my sisters with their picket signs when I needed them?
Them's Fightin' Words
A Gen-Z internet quarrel over Beyonce or Taylor Swift is child's play compared to the maelstrom of social media vitriol Baby Boomers are capable of unleashing when a favored classic film or screen personality falls under critical scrutiny.

Having wanted to be a filmmaker since the age of 11 when I saw Rosemary's Baby, after graduation, there was no question that I was going to film school. A move that marked the end of the informal phase of my cinema education and ushered in a period in my life that I now look back on and call the Status & Ego epoch.
In many ways, film school was everything I hoped it would be. Not the least of it being my “How long has this been going on?” reaction to the idea of earning academic credit for that which I’d been gleefully doing all those years for nothing. The transition from film-consumer to film-maker was fun and challenging, but...being the talker that I am...I got the biggest charge out of the Film Study classes.
Classes with names like Classic Film Theory & Aesthetics, where movies were thoughtfully and critically discussed without the assumption that scrutiny automatically signaled a fault-finding expedition, brought back memories of the fun I had talking movies with my sisters as a kid. For the first time in my life, in an atmosphere where I was free to eat, drink, sleep, and breathe movies to my heart’s content, I felt completely in my element. So much so that I scarcely noticed that I was surrounded by, and had myself, morphed into, this:
I don't mean to generalize (yes, I do), but when someone says something like this,
the least of what's intended to be conveyed is that they're going to the movies. 

There are worse things than being a film snob, but few are as boring to be around. I don't know how my relatives withstood it. Quicker and more painlessly than I'd like to admit, I'd allowed myself to become the '70s version of what I call the Criterion Collection hipster: the self-styled cineaste overheard at film festivals saying things like, “You mean you’ve never seen ‘The Bicycle Thief’…not even once?”
Hungry for the instant (meaningless) status and ego lift and kinship of belonging to a community of film lovers, I deluded myself into believing that seeing movies in arthouses was superior to a cineplex, and that watching films with subtitles and dropping the names of foreign film directors gave me some kind of cultural cachet.

"The fact that the [Marvel Universe] films themselves don't interest me is a matter of personal taste and temperament."   - Martin Scorsese 

A simple cinephile fact, yet it bears constant repeating: 
Not everyone has to feel the same way about a movie. 
Maybe film schools should offer a course teaching film scholars that no matter how esteemed, awarded, profitable, critically acclaimed, or beloved a film, franchise, or cult favorite is; it's perfectly OK and absolutely natural for someone else to dislike it. Those individuals are not wrong, they're not jealous, they aren't haters, they're not stupid, and they didn't misunderstand it... they simply feel differently about it than you do. 

Movies had always had such an expansive effect on my life, yet once I embarked on a course of formal cinema study—taking both film and myself far too seriously—my world only narrowed.

But, in the words of Stephen Sondheim, "Everybody has to go through stages like that." It took the distancing of time and an intervention from a highly unlikely source (see: Xanadu post) before I was able to find my way back to that kid who fell in love with movies on Saturday afternoons because of the dreams they inspired, not the identity-association and ego-status I sought to acquire via its consumption (i.e., you are what you watch).
And I’m afraid I’ve never lost my passion for talking about movies, and happily, for the last 24 years or so I’ve been able to indulge my mania for post-screening armchair movie quarterbacking with my partner. A fellow of unyielding good taste (he’ll appreciate my adding) who shares the belief that fandom, comfort movies, and franchise loyalty are all an important part of what makes movies so much fun, but upholds the principle that film has always been at its best when it is also inspiring new thoughts and ideas, not merely confirming the ones we already hold.
Show Me The Magic

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2015

Saturday, August 17, 2019


"All right now everybody, reach for the nightgown of the Lord!"

It’s weird to think back to a time when I chiefly only knew these great ladies of the screen from the following movie roles: Bette Davis (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Dead Ringer, The Nanny), Joan Crawford (Strait-Jacket, Berserk!), Olivia De Havilland (Lady in a Cage, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte), and Tallulah Bankhead (Die, Die My Darling), Barbara Stanwyck (The Night Walker), and Shelley Winters (The Mad Room, What’s The Matter With Helen?, Who Slew Auntie Roo?).
Certainly, this assortment reflects the tastes of a kid enamored of the cheap fright sensationalism of B-movies available on late-night TV or weekends at the movies (it wasn’t until I was in college that I came to appreciate just how distinguished these actresses’ pre-scream-queen careers were), but they also reflect a time in Hollywood when leading ladies were close to becoming an endangered species. Particularly actresses of a certain age. In the late 60’s-early’70s, if you saw an older actress on the screen at all, it was very likely as the mayhem target in a horror flick, or as the terrorizing psycho in a hag-horror exploitation film. 
Pistol Packin' Mama
Shelley Winters as Ma Parker in a 1966 episode of the Batman TV series
Shelley Winters as Ma Barker in Roger Corman's Bloody Mama - 1970

Hollywood’s youthquake explosion had little use for mature and untoned flesh, so it was characteristic of films of the time to depict the middle-aged in oversimplified, often negative terms. Older men were usually morally corrupt, impotent—figuratively and literally—figures of emasculated conformity standing in the way of the virile, rebellious antihero (think any police chief in a '70s detective movie). Women—at least those upon whom Hollywood’s male gaze no longer bestowed its singular gauge of feminine worth and validation: desirability—were portrayed as grotesques and figures to be shunned. 
Shelley Winters as Kate "Ma" Barker
Don Stroud as Herman Barker
Robert De Niro as Lloyd Barker
Clint Kimbrough as Arthur Barker
Robert Walden as Fred Barker
Diane Varsi as Mona Gibson
Bruce Dern as Kevin Dirkman

When Shelley Winters was cast as Depression-era crime matriarch Ma Barker in Roger Corman’s Bonnie & Clyde-inspired Bloody Mama, the sizable role was seen as more of a departure for the two-time Oscar winner back in 1970 than it appears to be today. A character actress known for her scene-stealing supporting roles, Winters was always a bit of a ripe performer, but it wasn’t until the late-‘60s that she began to bid adieu to the relatively subtle phase of her early career, and her film roles gradually began to take on the outsized dimensions of her then-frequent talk show appearances.

For better or worse—depending on your fondness for high-decibel melodrama with a side of stuffed ham—her performances in American International’s Wild in the Streets (1968) and her brief but memorable turn in The Mad Room (1969) became the Shelley Winters standard. These twin B-movies ushered in a decade that saw Winters delivering increasingly shrill and broad-strokes performances in a string of low-budget thrillers and TV movies while somehow still managing to wow in the occasional major release (she’s awfully good in Paul Mazursky’s Next Stop, Greenwich Village – 1976, and of course, her waterlogged, Oscar-nominated turn in 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure).
Mama Dearest
Mere months after playing mom to the fabulous Barker boys of Arkansas,

Shelley Winters played stage mother to Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo Marx
in the flop 1970 Broadway musical Minnie's Boys. 

Bloody Mama, the highly-fictionalized account of the criminal exploits of the real-life Barker Gang who terrorized the American Midwest from 1931 to 1935, plays on the since-refuted legend that Kate “Ma” Barker was the hard-as-nails ringleader of a gang of outlaws consisting of her four imbecilic sons. Screenwriter Robert Thom (director and writer of the 1969 Jennifer Jones error-in-judgement Angel, Angel Down We Go) embellishes the story with the fictional characters of Mona Gibson (Diane Varsi) a blasé, pragmatic hooker; non-familial gang member Kevin Dirkman (Bruce Dern), a stand-in for the real-life Alvin Karpis; and Sam Pendlebury (Pat Hinkle) a kidnapped Memphis cotton magnate substituting for Hamm’s Beer president and 1933 Barker gang kidnap victim William Hamm.

Directed by “King of the Bs” Roger Corman, the R-rated Bloody Mama is clearly inspired by Arthur Penn’s almost elegiac, mythologizing Bonnie and Clyde (1967), but Corman dispenses with the arthouse soft-focus treatment and goes straight for the in-your-face bluntness of Drive-In exploitation. The result is bracing sensationalism rooted in a look at Depression-era Americana that isn’t interested in romanticizing the white-trash south, ennobling its disenfranchised poor, or feeding into the folk-hero myths of Public Enemy outlaws of the 1930s.
Kate Barker says goodbye to the Ozarks and her ineffectual husband George (Alex Nicol).
In another example of foreshadowed casting, Winters here looks just like Lena Gogan,
 the mountain matriarch she will play seven years hence in Disney's Pete's Dragon (1977)

Before Bloody Mama is even 15 minutes in, there have been 2 rapes (one resulting in a broken arm), male frontal nudity, implied incest, newsreel footage of Klansmen marching in Washington in protest of anti-lynching laws (Whaddaya know, MAGA ain’t new!), a man stomped to death, and hillbilly housewife Kate Barker taking off with her sons in a car stolen from the local sheriff and kissing her husband goodbye with the words, “You never did mount me proper. I guess your heart wasn’t in it.” And the hits keep on coming.

As envisioned by Corman and company, Ma Barker is a Bible-thumping, hymn-singing sociopath with a prudish streak when it comes to profanity (everyone else’s, anyway) and women’s emancipation (“Women was showing their bodies in public, smoking, doing God knows what else!”); yet thinks nothing of murder, kidnapping, and robbery so long as it secures her and her boys their stake in what she deems to be her proper chunk of the American Dream.
Mother Knows Best
Shunned as outlaws and outsiders, in a world seen as "them" vs. "us"
 Ma Barker makes her own rules when it comes to family 

A staunch believer in family-first loyalty and unquestioning obedience, Ma’s amorality, which extends to sleeping with her sons when the spirit moves her, brings about a kind of trickle-down depravity as her deplorable male offspring lay claim to a virtual smorgasbord of psychological disorders. Eldest boy Herman is psychotic given to blind, murderous rages; addlepated Lloyd is a drug addict; Fred is a sexual masochist who recruits his prison cellmate into the gang; and Arthur—seemingly the only member of the gang who can read and do math, and thus the brains of the outfit—shares his brothers' degeneracy (and women, on occasion) but is emotionally withdrawn to the point of shutdown.

When Lloyd tells a soon-to-be victim, “I’m not people, see? None of us Barkers is people, he knows whereof he speaks.
Feeling a little down, Ma chooses her youngest son's lover to be her bedtime company

Newsreel footage and historical photos punctuating the crimes of the Barker gang make their social-climbing ascendance as Public Enemies look like an anarchic vision of the American success ethic. Meanwhile, Ma’s perverse insistence on keeping God and scripture at the forefront of their barbarism turns into a solid indictment of the role religious hypocrisy has always played in this country’s tradition of blindered self-mythologizing. 

Ma Barker and her motley gang are outlaws and outsiders, but if you’re looking for sympathetic misfits turned hardened criminals by a harsh world, you’ll have to look elsewhere. These Barkers are strictly dog-eat-dog.

I’m a huge fan of Shelley Winters. Like Joan Crawford and Faye Dunaway, she’s an actress I find to be equally entertaining whether she’s bad or good. Happily, she’s good a great deal of the time. When I came to Bloody Mama (a movie I dearly wanted to see back in 1970, but saw for the first time this year) everything about it—the title, the subject, Corman, the American International thing, Winters’ late-career embracing of her tendency to go straight over the top—had me anticipating a deliriously campy evening of trash cinema. I was happily disappointed.
Pat Hingle as Sam Adams Pendlebury
On one level Bloody Mama is everything you’d expect from a Roger Corman film: a fast-paced, slightly loony meld of comedy, melodrama, and mayhem…the typical Corman pseudo-ineptitude served up with amble doses of sensationalized action, violence, and sleaze. Bloody Mama never comes close to giving Bonnie and Clyde anything to worry about (it doesn’t really even live up to its own tabloid title), but by its own modest merits, it succeeds in being a fresh, wholly satisfying and enjoyable no-holds-barred update of the classic era gangster flick. Solid storytelling on a budget, It’s arguably Corman’s best film.
Scatman Crothers as Moses
What I wasn’t expecting was for a movie called Bloody Mama to be so unironically good! The drama is compelling, the laughs (surprise of surprises) are of the intentional sort, the performances have dimension, and the film’s threadbare look works to its benefit. Shelley Winters' Ma Barker is pitch-perfect. And that includes the times she's pitching right over the fence. Is it a good performance? I'd say so. Good in the way an overstimulated movie like this needs. By turns funny, moving, and ultimately monstrous, I personally think she's better here than she is in The Poseidon Adventure
Diane Varsi, who appeared with Shelley Winters in Wild in the Streets (1968)
won an Oscar nomination for her film debut in Peyton Place (1957)

An observation attributed to director Martin Ritt (Hud, Norma Rae) is “Directing is 80% casting.” In the case of Bloody Mama, I’d say it’s more like 99 and 44/100%. Without argument, Bloody Mama's outrageously distinguished cast is both its chief asset and primary recommendation. With the exceptions of Don Stroud and Diane Varsi, Method acting devotee Shelley Winters heads a cast made up almost entirely of members of The Actors Studio...veteran (Pat Hingle, who's a standout)...and novice alike. The performances are so compelling and detailed, the character-study side of Bloody Mama actually made the car chases and gunplay feel like a distraction.
In this, his second film, future superstar and multi-Oscar-winner Robert De Niro is impossible not to watch. Though a generous ensemble player, your eyes stay trained on him no matter who's at the center of a scene. It's no surprise that he's good, it's just amazing to see so much of his talent in evidence so early on.
Bloody Mama marks the film debut of actor Robert Walden (of TV's Lou Grant).
Clint Kimbrough (right) made his film debut playing another quiet, bookish character in Hot Spell (1957)

“I’m loud and I’m vulgar, and I wear the pants in the house because somebody’s got to, but I’m not a monster. I’m not!”   Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Traditionally, it doesn't take much for a woman to be seen as a monster in films. Hell, in psycho-biddy films, she just has to be old. In Ma Barker you have a character who is indeed loud, vulgar, and wears the figurative pants...but comparatively speaking, those are her good points. Bloody Ma Barker is a monster, the genuine article. And unlike the romanticized subjects of so many of those Dust Bowl bandit films that came in the wake of Bonnie and Clyde, she's not anybody's idea of a heroine, anti or otherwise.
Kevin watches in horror as Ma Barker earns her bloody nickname 
Bloody Mama isn't a film suited to everybody's taste, but thanks to Roger Corman's stay-out-of-the-way direction, a smarter-than-it-needed-to-be screenplay, and as embodied by Shelley Winters' large as life and twice as natural performance; I'm persuaded to dub this fabricated incarnation of the '30s crime matriarch something of a fabulous monster for those willing to take a step through this 1970 looking glass.

Bloody Mama was released in Los Angeles in April of 1970. Earlier that year in January, public outcry met the unveiling of a billboard for the film on Sunset Blvd. The ad featured the tagline "The Family That Slays Together Stays Together".  With the Manson Family trial set for June that year, many considered the billboard to be in bad taste and eventually it was removed.

In 1977 Euro-Caribbean singing group Boney M had a hit with "Ma Baker" a retelling of the Ma Barker legend to a disco beat. When asked why the name was changed to "Baker," lyricist Fred Jay stated it was simply because it sounded better.

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2019

Wednesday, July 31, 2019


“Oh, Mrs. Dalloway…always giving parties to cover the silence.”
The Hours - the 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Michael Cunningham

When I finished reading Virginia Woolf’s celebrated 1925 novel, Mrs. Dalloway (an inner monologue of a 1920's society woman as she prepares for one of her many self-distracting parties), the first thing that occurred to me was how remarkable it is that someone had actually found a way of committing to the printed page that restless state of lying in bed, wanting to sleep, but being unable to because one’s brain will simply not turn off. I never would have imagined the rules of grammar could accommodate such an accurate depiction of the way the busy mind, stimulated by darkness and silence, sets about the delicate balancing act of entertaining several simultaneous, often contradictory, thoughts while erasing the distinctions between past and present. All in a manner so emotionally vivid that it feels as though an entire lifetime has been lived in one’s mind while lying in a state of turbulent calm during the wee small hours of a sleepless night.

I was also struck by the canny way Woolf’s not-so-easy-to-grasp stream of consciousness prose—communicating the myriad thoughts, impressions, and reactions of her characters by way of free-form, intermingled, inner monologues—so poetically captured a personal trait of my own that has plagued me for as long as I can remember: the habit of overthinking everything. A tiresome habit that grants equally weighty consideration to all experience, trivial to significant, till even the smallest activity or interaction occasions an "off to the races!" mental barrage of feelings, rear-view ruminations, and emotional responses.
Vanessa Redgrave as Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway
Michael Kitchen as Peter Walsh
Sarah Badel as Lady Sally Seton Rosseter
John Standing as Richard Dalloway
In the shifting-time format of Mrs. Dalloway, which concerns itself with the dark/light duality of life, Woolf reveals a profound understanding of how mental multitasking is not only a natural way for individuals to process experience (although rarely spoken of), but an exasperatingly easy habit to fall into when working, carrying out menial tasks, or while tending to the maintenance of an appropriately serene outward appearance. A habit fine-tuned to accommodate the expectations of others: i.e., society, family, friends, and random strangers.
These days, technology—by way of smartphones, earbuds, and the like—does its part in making easy-access distraction the preferred method by which individuals can readily seal up the cracks of silence that would otherwise allow for the painful intrusion of introspection and self-confrontation. But back in Virginia Woolf’s post-war London of 1923, particularly as it applies to one Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway of Westminster, one had to make do with throwing parties. 
Natascha McElhone as Clarissa Parry (young Mrs. Dalloway)
Alex Cox as young Peter Walsh
Lena Headey as young Sally Seton
Robert Portal as young Richard Dalloway
Mrs. Dalloway takes place over the course of a single day in June 1923. A day in which middle-aged socialite Clarissa Dalloway is to give one of her celebrated soirées. In a life of hemmed-in privilege and limited usefulness, giving parties is Mrs. Dalloway's "gift" to herself and others: "It's all I can do. Give people one night in which everything seems enchanted."  As she goes about the business of preparing for the event—her outward excitement betraying hints of inner desperation—Mrs. Dalloway’s slightly distracted demeanor leaves one with the impression of watching an individual trying very hard not to think about something, yet finding at every instance they’re unable to do anything but.

Advancing age and illness have conspired to make Clarissa sensitive to her isolation and loneliness (her daughter's nearly grown, she and her husband sleep apart) fueling her barely-acknowledged depression and fostering within her a sense of futility of purpose. Though she largely succeeds in valiantly suppressing these emotions through an obstinate refusal to let the Gods "have their own way" and a staunch observance of the social norms befitting her wealth and status as the wife of a member of Parliament; Mrs. Dalloway nevertheless remains haunted by echoes of her youth. A time when life held for her the potential of a more vital existence.
The reappearance of a past suitor (the unmoored Peter Walsh, whose proposal of marriage Clarissa rejected to wed the more dependable Richard Dalloway) trigger memories of the impossible but very real love she felt for her cigar-smoking, free-thinking friend Sally Seton. A mutual spiritual and sexual attraction whose repressed passion now challenges Mrs. Dalloway’s fragile sense of happiness.
Rupert Graves as Septimus Warren Smith
Amelia Bullmore as Lucrezia (Rezia) Warren Smith

Running concurrent to Clarissa Dalloway’s story is a parallel, mirroring narrative involving the tortured Septimus Warren Smith and his desolate wife Rezia. Septimus is a shell-shocked WWI veteran whose mental deterioration and difficulty in readjusting to postwar life reflect Clarissa’s depression and isolation…only rendered in stark, bas-relief.
Septimus’ mental illness (manifest in trauma-induced hallucinations and suicidal thoughts tied to suppressed feelings for a fellow soldier whose death he witnessed) is of the unruly, socially-unacceptable kind. While Clarissa, forearmed by years of aristocracy-born training in learning how to stifle emotions, is able to channel her own mental illness (depression and a melancholy fixation with death) into socially-acceptable, gender-mandated pursuits like hostessing.

Yet in spite of their differences and never meeting (the film devises a moment, not in the book, where each catches a glimpse of the other in a moment of vulnerable recognition), Clarissa and Septimus have much in common. Principally, an intense guardianship of the soul, a love of poetry, an appreciation of nature, and a sense of life’s beauty even when overwhelmed by the fear of never being able to feel anything.
Connected by duality, their fates take tragically different paths. But each, in their way, succeeds in their determined resistance to surrendering their private selves to the control of others. A small victory perhaps, but for each, a distinct act of courageousness. In a world of you must and you should, the fight to preserve the privacy of one’s soul is the ultimate triumph of self-ownership.
Virginia Woolf’s interpersonal stream-of-consciousness narrative is transferred to the screen with a conventional Masterpiece Theater/ Merchant-Ivory fidelity that I nonetheless found to be deeply affecting and superbly realized in its casting and the depth of its performances. Relying on voiceovers and flashbacks, Dutch filmmaker Marleen Gorris (director of 1989s Best Foreign film Oscar winner Antonia’s Line) and screenwriter Dame Eileen Atkins (co-creator of the 1971 BBC series Upstairs, Downstairs) may not have been able to come up with a cinematic style equivalent to Woolf’s distinctively fluid, intimate prose, but the relatively straightforward approach given the material achieves a kind of melancholy poetry.
A product of both her upbringing and her time, Mrs. Dalloway is fearful that age brings the end of sensation. Ironically sensing that it is precisely her fearfulness that has brought her to a life where only the structured, organized activity of giving parties and playing hostess provides her the opportunity to feel anything at all. 

I came around to reading Mrs. Dalloway by a somewhat circuitous route. A few months ago, my partner, knowing I’d never read any Virginia Woolf at all, by way of an introduction to the author gave me a copy of the 1975 short story collection Mrs. Dalloway’s Party: A Short Story Sequence. The accessibility of this introduction into the world of Clarissa Dalloway led me to seek out the movie adaptation, which then made me feel I was at last ready to tackle the novel itself.
I absolutely adored the book. So much so that I’m glad I saw the film first. Had the sequencing been reversed, I would have come to the film with far too many impossible-to-meet expectations. As it is, the film was able to enchant me on its own merits, the novel helping to inform the screen characters with a greater depth not possible given the relative brevity of a film's running time.

I ended up watching the movie a second time, during which the book seemed to work in concert to give me a greater understanding of Woolf’s themes and a richer experience overall. 
"It's so very dangerous to live for only one day."
Clarissa and her “double” Septimus both suffer from depression. English society’s rigidity is reflected in the manner in which doctors (William Bradshaw) and friends (Lady Bruton) display an impatience with and indifference to mental illness. Deeming emotional health to largely be a matter of personal rectitude, this (still pervasive) attitude reminds me of the scene in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) where the strict headmistress Miss Mackay dismisses the notion that the heroine of Verdi’s La Traviata could actually die of a broken heart: “Violetta did not expire for love of Alfredo. Violetta was a thoroughly silly woman with diseased lungs. If she’d been properly brought up, she’d have been out on the hockey field breathing deeply.”

"They were meant to be red."

It's a great gift when a film can make me cry, and at times Mrs. Dalloway achieves moments of such heartbreaking beauty and sensitivity, that the waterworks dam overflows. Nothing but praise for the luminous color cinematography by Sue Gibson and the delicate, affecting musical score by Ilona Sekacz.

As a story about a woman hemmed in by the gender limitations of the time and her social status, Mrs. Dalloway shares several of the themes found in one of my all-time favorite plays (and Glenda Jackson movie): Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. For starters, the title of each work conveys the central conflict of self-identification facing its characters. The lack of a first name in Virginia Woolf’s book reflects the heroine’s sense of the loss of her individuality in marriage (“Mrs. Dalloway, Mrs. Dalloway. I’m not even Clarissa anymore”). On the opposite spectrum, the maiden name emphasis of Ibsen’s title stresses how little his anti-heroine identifies with her married name of Hedda Tesman.
The solitary Peter Walsh haunted by his love for Clarissa 
"She broke my heart. And you can't love like that twice."

In terms of character, Clarissa and Hedda are not at all alike, yet both struggle with depression and feelings of isolated powerlessness within their marriages. Victims of their aristocratic upbringings, the women may chafe at the constraints of their social class, but both are, in their hearts, snobs who place great stock in their position and how they are perceived. The latter concern, in particular, leaving them paralyzed when it comes to taking action towards achieving the liberation they crave. The one area of true defiance they share is in refusing to allow themselves to fall under the power of another; a theme both works...leads to an act of suicide as an act of self-possession.

"Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life...."

The filmed Mrs. Dalloway never replicates the "busy mind" sensation I got from reading the book, but in its place, via the elegant soulfulness of so many of the performances, I found a stronger emotional empathy with its characters. Simply gorgeous how the film reflects on the pain of repressing one's sexuality, the fluidity of love, and the fleeting elusiveness of happiness. 

When I think of Mrs. Dalloway, what lingers in my mind are Vanessa Redgrave’s sad, haunted eyes; Natascha McElhone’s heartbreaking youthful exuberance; and the rawness of Michael Kitchen’s wounded romantic spirit. Superb performances abound, but Vanessa Redgrave's Clarissa touches my heart and Natascha McElhone is incandescent. Together, their performances bring Clarissa Dalloway to vivid life and bring a tender cohesion to the spirit of the novel’s theme of a life lived in one day.
“I remember thinking: ‘She’s abandoned me.’ And then, all of a sudden, she was there with her hand stretched out…looking utterly beautiful, saying: ‘Come on, come on. They’re all waiting.’”

Like Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, and Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf; Mrs. Dalloway is a work I don’t think I could have appreciated, let alone understood, had I come across it in my youth. A person needs a few years on them to recognize that it is far too easy in life to take joy for granted, and one needs a lifetime’s worth of losses and regrets to appreciate the truth that pursuing happiness is never a superficial goal or waste of time. What trivializes it is when it's used as a numbing retreat from life's struggles, or as a means of blotting out the sound of life’s silences.
Mrs. Dalloway's Party

Dame Eileen Atkins in The Hours
Mrs. Dalloway marks the screenwriting debut of actress Dame Eileen Atkins (Gosford Park) and what a remarkable first effort it proves to be.  Atkins appeared as the flower shop merchant in the Mrs. Dalloway-linked film The Hours (2002), and in 1991 she starred Off-Broadway as Virginia Woolf in the one-woman show A Room of One's Own.

Fear no more the heat o' the sun. Nor the furious winter's rages.
Cymbeline - William Shakespeare

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