Saturday, December 27, 2008

Hygiene, Mental and Otherwise: The Films of Samuel Fuller

Let's talk about Samuel Fuller. At Film is Truth C and I have an indexed card on which we write the names of films we need to see. Usually we both go in with purpose (the past few weeks has been strictly Lost - Season 4 and Woody Allen films), but when we have none, we use the card. Generally, when picking a film for both of us to watch together, I choose one written in her handwriting. The Naked Kiss was one of these, though when I got it home she claimed she'd never heard of it.

I will speak for both of us when I say we were greatly entertained.

Not the best of films quality-wise, as there are many abrupt cuts that seem to be mistakes, the odd shift of a character's head while speaking that is the result of the film and not a spastic actor, the sudden insertion of darkness into a scene, as if a light had just gone out and they kept the take anyway. Not the best bit of acting and certain lines of dialogue one can marvel at for their poorlywrittenness. The camp was high, the shadows entrancing in their ill-noir-or-film-student style, and the use of crippled children... well. All of these were marvelous.

The film opens with a fight scene, a bald prostitute beating her drunken john. He rips her wig off, she knocks him flat and takes (just) the money owed. Soon a new scene, new town. We see main character, soon-to-be reformed prostitute "Kelly" getting off a bus on a small downtown street. Ah, Grantville. The movie theater marquee advertises Shock Corridor (Fuller's previous release, which I'll detail later and which, I'm nearly certain would not have gotten a wide enough release to be in this little town) and a banner stretches over the street promoting the Fashion Show to benefit crippled children.

Much of Kelly's movement and demeanor, the camera angles, etc as she arrives in Grantville remind me of the opening of Hitchcock's Marnie (often touted as H's worst film - my favorite), which will appear in theaters the same year. It seems inconceivable that the correlation is not direct and meaningful. From the camera following the back of the woman before we ever see her face, to the shot of her washing her hair in a sink, one director has obviously liked the other's introduction of the "thieving" woman and used it to introduce his own. While surely Fuller could have aped Hitchcock, it seems possible, even likely that Hitchcock might directly imitate the camp of a lesser auteur and supports my hypothesis about Marnie as purposeful in its awfulness, which I've written about in depth in other venues.

The basic premise of the film is this: hooker on the run from her pimp rolls into Grantville under the premise of selling Angel Foam champagne, first customer (police chief) indulges in all her services and suggests she take her trade over the river to the Candy Shoppe (the local brothel, but in the next town) because "we don't allow that kind of thing here," after looking in his bathroom mirror at herself she decides to go straight, becomes a nurse at the local crippled children's hospital, falls in love and gets engaged to the wealthy playboy who founded said hospital, she learns he's a child molester, kills him, gets arrested, exonerated when she finally proves his perversion by finding the little girl she saw at his house, and is still driven out of town.

The film is marked by what I'm coming to enjoy as one of Fuller's traits: the disembodied hand reaching into the frame. Taking cues from horror genres, this is a bit jarring, like a hand reaching around my own head while I watch the film. First it appears as the john's hand grabbing at her wig, then, charmed by a baby (apparently left alone on the street) in a pram, it's her hand reaching in to paw at baby - and at an angle that absolutely wouldn't work for the way she's standing. At other moments the hand may be attached to a body on screen and STILL seem otherworldly, as when Grant (the playboy) first kisses Kelly. He lies her down on the couch and begins climbing over her. The shadows are deep and ominous. And here Fuller gives it away, because immediately we're a bit frightened of Grant without knowing why. We see his head from the back, her unsure face, hands splayed fully and pushing at him, so that we see all ten fingers over the bulk of his shoulders. There's an overlong pause, and then she pulls him towards her.

Ten minutes in, C had said of the film, "it's as though feminism could never and would never exist." In this moment of permission, I feel she's getting it wrong, that Fuller is showing the woman's power to say yes or no. But that wasn't it at all, as we learn. You see, Kelly has tasted a mouth like Grant's before. Ah yes, the Naked Kiss.

When Grant admits his problem with children, he hopes she - as a former lady of the night - will still want his hand. "I can't marry a normal girl." And thus prostitution is equated with pedophilia. A false parallel the likes of Rick Warren would appreciate surely.

More than anything The Naked Kiss felt to me like the embodiment of the fallen woman from a Victorian novel in Kelly, the reformed hooker who makes good, then bad, but what was really good, and yet still can't be forgiven for her past.

Oh, and there's also a hooker named Hatrack and when the cops are looking for the little girl Kelly saw victimized, the cops have girls who fit the description line up for Kelly to identify. It only took a moment of sitting with my discomfort to realize that not only is this equating the show girls lined up for men at the Candy Shoppe, but in a way it reverses the blame of abuse. It shifts responsibility onto the child, as it's normally the criminal who gets picked out by a witness in a lineup.


"Hamlet was made for Freud, not you."

The ___________ in ____________'s clothing. As in The Naked Kiss's prostitute posing as, then becoming a nurse, Shock Corridor is the story of a journalist who checks himself into a looney bin to solve a murder, only to become looney himself - and AFTER! he's solved the crime. In The Naked Kiss we have real pedophilia; in Shock Corridor we have fake incest. "I stroked her braids; I'd never hurt her." Johnny gets girlfriend Cathy (played by Constance Towers, who also played Kelly in _The Naked Kiss_) to pose as his sister. After a few weeks in - though not yet "crazy" - he's conditioned to be disgusted touching her when she comes to visit.

There's coded homophobia in Shock Corridor as well, as one of the main characters (loonies) we're introduced to is a large, semi-effeminate man who sings arias to lull himself to sleep and welcomes Johnny to the ward by stroking his hair. And in a psych ward Fuller finds many moments to feature the freakish limbs of catatonic schizos jutting jarringly onto screen.

Also present: Female Sexuality, The Fear Of. Upon stumbling into the wrong room, which is populated by "Nymphos" and decorated by crude drawings of muscled men on the walls, John is attacked. The visual is first not unlike a gang of Sharks in _West Side Story_ crowding around a lone Jet, then a pack of vampires feasting on prey. John is covered by the flesh of young (would-be) housewives who must have asked someone for too much love.

"When we're asleep nobody can tell a sane man from an insane man."

The murder John wants to solve, to write the article, to win him the Pulitzer, took place in the mental hospital's kitchen. My first thought was, solving the murder of a crazy by a crazy won't win you anything. And, of course, I immediately knew what the outcome would be: a big dose of crazy for our "hero."

Kelly was lovable, this Johnny's just cold, with well-sculpted hair and the full lips of a man destined for much pouting.

Both films are in black and white, a fact which (the lack of color) I forget until something breaks it. Most striking, this shift from b&w to color in film usually signals a move between worlds. I think Pleasantville, I think The Wizard of Oz. Shock Corridor is kind of like that. In this movie color happens three times and is always reminisces of the outside world just before a man goes "sane" long enough to give Johnny a pertinent detail on the case.

1. The Civil War general who dances crazed to Dixie and calls our hero "sir" after being convinced he outranks him: we get Buddha in color, grey statue crowned by the bluest of skies. We get monks and geishas, Mount Fuji, and other images of Japan. The Civil War general was actually a defector in Korea, a red who becomes mad upon passing through Japan on his way home.

2. Trent, hyper-racist black man, convinced he's the founder of the KKK: the wards keepers are frustrated that he keeps stealing pillow cases. He fashions them with kind of a cross-like emblem, cuts holes for eyes, and dons the hood, chases another black man, convincing other (all white) ward residents, "let's get him before he marries my daughter!" It's caricature of double consciousness, internalized racism, sure, but you have to admire Fuller for making plain the obscene in the midst of the Civil Rights era ('64). Here, in color, we get tribal dancers in Africa and learn that Trent was one of the first students integrated into a college campus.

3. Niagara Falls. This is John's madness. The most amazing scene in the film. I'm not even sure I can talk about it. Shouldn't I leave something a surprise if anyone's gotten this far and might still want to see this film?

And the secret is always sexual. Someone's been molesting female patients. I'm sorry, "taking advantage of" female patients - just so you know, they did ask for it.

It's not clear why Johnny should become catatonic from his time here. Crazy, sure. Ranting, I'd rant. Catatonic?

In trying to get rigid Johnny to hug her, his iced affection, Cathy turns him into an image of the molester in The Naked Kiss. In this his hands are splayed, but she's still the decider when it comes to affection, and there's always something off about the men she loves.

What I learned: we're all perched on the edge of madness and it's divine. "Whom God wishes to destroy he first makes mad."

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Poetics of Gilligan's Isle, or What To Do in an Empty House

On days like today when C heads to Seattle and I've got the house entirely to myself for a long swath of sure time, the house takes on the nearly spectral quality of a childhood "sick" house.

As a child I handled time off from school for illness much in the way I do now. Through sometimes Herculean effort I would stomach the classroom through the worst of illnesses to save the off days for the idylls and focus of the empty house. It never seemed particularly beneficial to be at home when sick, when one could coast through a school day napping at the back of a classroom.

On a healthy day when staying home, my heart would race as I drummed up my symptoms, though my mother never made any kind of motion to probe the veracity of my statements. There was no hand to the forehead in search of fever, no offering of pills for migraine. This was very much in keeping with my lame duck childhood. Once the second set of children had been born, there was little - right or wrong - I could do to receive notice; I was simply to ride out the rest of my term.

Those days off from school were often not so different than a day at school, just with less hair brushing and social anxiety. While in school, most classes found me with a book (usually novel) concealed in my lap. At home, once I'd gotten over the marvel of not having to compete for the remote control, I would watch the requisite hour of Gilligan's Island (back-to-back episodes of sandy hi-jinx) or MTV before returning to whatever I was reading. Sometimes I thrilled in the excitement of reading while the TV was on, something that was generally frowned on by my energy-conscious (read: miserly) stepfather. He did not believe attention could adequately be paid to both TV and book and therefore either lamp or TV should be snuffed. I also took long, luxurious showers when I was home alone, resting in the knowledge that there would be no fist on the door five minutes in. Sometimes I stayed under the stream until the hot water ran out entirely.

Those days were never long enough. This was when I learned what time was and how I'd never have enough of it. I constructed great plans for the day: TV watching and the long shower, baking cookies from found ingredients (so what if there was no flour when there was pancake mix), the slow rifle through mother's drawers (I'd had a friend discover she was adopted this way, and was always looking for the papers that said I wasn't really hers), a few hours of painting, of reading. Then as now things always had to be cut.

Today I want to finish Zizek's _The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity_, I want to read more of Kathleen Rooney's _Oneiromance_, which I'm taking my time with, beautiful book that it is. I want to map the next chapter of my book, work some on the administrative side of things (submissions), think about revisions of the Parallax essay, take a bath, finish work for the day, start on dinner, the Roasted Butternut Squash and Kale with Fig Balsamic Reduction I promised.

I've taken the bath and now this is nearly done, regrettably, the only other guarantee is work. I've just watched too much TV (an hour of toggling between CNN and Modern Marvels). What do kids watch these days if there's no Gilligan's Island on regular rotation? I hate to think of reruns of Full House or Roseanne bringing up this generation's ill children.

I meant to write about the Poetics of Erasure exhibit, wrong turns, and good conversation with strangers. This will have to wait.