Thursday, March 24, 2011

Five Reasons to Live, No. 12

1. Dinosaur Park, Rapid City, South Dakota

Growing up, there was always a thin line between vacationing & escaping. At the age of seven I was taken away from my mother & father because a Hall County, Nebraska judge & a lead-witted swarm of social workers decided they were unfit parents. And though they were far from perfect guardians, the court order had far more to do with the messiness of the divorce proceedings in which both parties pulled out the stops to show what a monster the other one was. My father was portrayed as an abusive, philandering drunk & an unrepentant gambler who was rarely at home & my mother was portrayed as a drunken whore who cheated on my father numerous times while he was off serving his country in three wars. While there was some truth to all of this, it didn't come close to telling the full story & I don't feel the need to burden you with that here, but the truth was they were both flawed people who -- while being fascinating & often quite loving pals to a young boy -- were not the kind of people you necessarily wanted to be dependent upon in a crisis. I often think I was taken away from them mostly because the judge had become repulsed by their efforts to destroy one another in court & wanted there to be some major repercussions for having to listen to such horrible stories from the mouths of people who once ostensibly loved one another & who'd somehow managed to stay married for nearly 20 years & have two high school-aged daughters & me, a straggler. I'm told at one point both of them admitted to the court that they still loved one another, which must have been the last straw for Judge Weaver. I'm sure he grumbled mightily, pounded his gavel & next thing you know I was off to live in an orphanage. It's not the decision I would have made, but I'm trying to see this as he must have. 

Because my father had some clout as an army officer & had retained the services of some talented lawyers he was allowed visitation rights on the weekends. Three times while I was in the orphanage this led to "family vacations", which meant he basically kidnapped me -- once to South Dakota for three weeks, once to California for four months & once to Mexico for nearly a year. My father & I also took two rather longish family vacations once I was adopted into a new foster family. Thankfully, by the time the second of these wrapped up, my eldest sister was old enough to take me in & stop all this nonsense. Though there was still one more little spontaneous, unscheduled family vacation to Alaska before my father settled down & decided it was probably best that I stay with my sister. I know I sound like I was a rag doll through most of this with no voice or will of my own, but my father doted on me. I think he always wanted a son & had given up after two daughters. When I showed up I suppose it was a brigadier general's dream come true. Not that these family vacations weren't fraught with moments that announced to me clearly that my father was no kind of father at all. He'd often lose all his money gambling or drinking & I'd hear him pleading with unknown parties on the phone for days on end & then, miraculously, everything would be fine. And then, in a few months, it wouldn't be again. And so on. Still, it was better than the orphanage & the foster families, so I always brought along some extra clothes on daddy visitation days. 

My father would ask, "What do you want to see?" & I'd invariably bring up dinosaurs because dinosaurs were everything to me. I knew all their names & when they lived. I knew what they ate & how they ate it. I knew how & when they perished & what part of the world coughed up their fossilized remains. So, on "vacation", we saw a lot of dinosaur footprints, a lot of dead volcanoes, fossil beds & tar pits, a lot of Sinclair stations & Ray Harryhausen movies. Dad bought me a lot of dinosaurs reference & comic books & we saw men wrestle alligators & snakes & hit every damn Natural History museum on the map. I owned a hundred of those little white cardboard boxes of worthless gems & minerals they sold in tourist traps like Wall Drug, Little America, Cave of the Winds & Reptile Gardens & a Mason Jar full of trilobites. I had a Boy Scout backpack full of rubber tomahawks & spears, beaded belts & feather-duster indian headdresses. I saw Hitler's parade car & the Bonnie & Clyde death car in at least three casino parking lots & four truck stops on the same vacation, which puzzled me, but I let it go for fear I might not like the truth. I had ceremonial Sioux dances (at least the kind they showed tourists at three in the afternoon on a weekday) memorized by the time I was nine. If my father could keep from being arrested, it wasn't a bad life. 

By far my favorite thing in the world though was driving through the ragged Black Hills or Wyoming's Snowy Range, being drowsy from too much Dad's Root Beer & too much chlorine in my eyes from swimming in the last Holiday Inn Solardome, curving around some granite outcropping with gnarled pine trees holding on for dear life & spotting a gathering of huge concrete dinosaurs grazing under the unbelievably low chilly skies of the northern Great Plains, their shadows so long, rippling with the motion of some hyperactive cloud formation. As anyone who's ever visited one of these places knows, there isn't much to do there but look & leave & maybe picnic, though we weren't really picnic people. But I'd spend hours just sitting in the sharp grass, picking sandburs out of my sneaker laces, staring up at the clouds moving quickly over the towering heads of a brontosaurus, while my father drank Cutty Sark & listened to Jim Reeves in the Oldsmobile. He'd let me sit as long as I wanted & in return, I'd let him sit in a small-town bar for most of the evening while I assembled an Aurora Glow-in-the-Dark monster model kit in a corner booth. 

2. The Miriam Hopkins Love Doll/Savage Intruder (Donald Wolfe, 1970)

I was thrilled to discover that one of my favorite actresses, Miriam Hopkins, had starred in one of those Henry Farrell/Robert Aldrich/Curtis Harrington Grand Guignol exercises (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Who Slew Auntie Roo?, What's the Matter with Helen?, etc.) that served as career resuscitation for so many classic Hollywood actresses in the 60s & early 70s. It's my favorite sub-genre & as such I'm not very critical about the product. Even the admittedly dreadful 1972 TV movie Dear Dead Delilah (starring Agnes Moorehead as the Gothic crone) has its charms where I'm concerned, though I can't find another soul who's willing to watch it with me front to back. Do I wish Savage Intruder had been titled Be Still, Be Still Dear Katherine or Who Dug Katherine Parker's Grave?? Of course I do, but this is really one of the better entries in the cycle even without being so obviously related to the others. Not only does Savage Intruder offer my favorite Lubitsch starlet Hopkins, but as a bonus we also get Gale Sondergaard, who conspired & connived her way through innumerable films of the 1930s & 40s. 

Hopkins, as the obligatory aging movie star Katherine Parker, attacks her role with palpable good humor, so we don't feel the same sense of discomfort we feel watching, say, Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd. Not that Swanson wasn't in on the joke for Billy Wilder's film, but she also gives it her all & never winks at the audience. So while Swanson turns in a great performance in Sunset Blvd., Miriam Hopkins goes for pure fun.  Katherine Parker has shut herself away in her mansion & spends her days being a royal pain in the ass to her assistants Leslie (Gale Sondergaard) & Greta (poor man's Joy Bang, Virginia Wing). Their lives of grotesque nostalgia & unreasonable demands are interrupted by a charming serial killer played by David Garfield (actor John Garfield's son). Garfield's demented sociopath is only charming in that 70s drive-in movie way, which is to say he's a complete asshole but somehow manages to either fuck or kill everyone in the mansion & its environs because folks tend to ignore the titanic chip on his shoulder in favor of his soap opera good looks. Apparently being sexy in the hippie counterculture meant being the most self-centered unpleasant prick you could possibly be, at least that was Hollywood's perception of it. 

To the usual nouveau Gothic trappings of the Baby Jane cycle, one-time director Donald Wolfe adds some great Kenneth Anger-inspired trip sequences, atmospheric footage of the late-60s Sunset Strip & some truly wigged-out flashbacks that seem to be filmed with the characters trapped in close quarters between a fish-eye camera lens & a funhouse mirror. And, of course, a Miriam Hopkins love doll, which keeps the rest of the staff thinking the psycho & her majesty are engaged in marathon sex-scapades when she's really buried in the rose bushes. The long scenes of Garfield wheeling the love doll around the mansion, putting it to bed, spooning with it & taking it out onto the veranda for air, have the kind of loopy, deranged charm we'd expect from one of the better Paul Bartel movies.

The real Miriam Hopkins in Savage Intruder

Miriam Hopkins by George Hurrell

3. Hand-To-Hand Combat/Bitter Victory (Nicholas Ray, 1957)

Almost all the aspects of the World War II Libyan suicide mission in Nicholas Ray's tempestuous Bitter Victory have some miniature or artificial double, the most famous being the distinctive bayonet practice dummies which -- with their big Valentine hearts & emphatically religious crusader chest-crosses -- are often more visually interesting than the main actors. 

My favorite of these weird doublings occurs in the officer's club at the beginning of the movie. We're supposed to be sizing up the portentious, furtive looks between Richard Burton, Curd Jurgens & Ruth Roman, but there's something more interesting & amusing going on at the bar. A drunk soldier, looking for all the world like a British Lenny Bruce, is reenacting his last battle for the bartender & some bleary-eyed patrons. Using only his hands, the occasional salt shaker or lime & some pretty impressive vocal impressions of troop carriers creaking open, soldiers storming beaches, mortar fire, sniper fire & of course, dying painfully in faraway lands, he manages to sum up the futility of war without a lot of melodramatic hand-wringing, dubious pun intended. 

4. Shadowplay/Becky Sharp (Rouben Mamoulian, 1935)

5. Angela Lyne is Back in London/Put Out More Flags by Evelyn Waugh (1942)

Angela Lyne was back in London; the affairs of the hospital were in order, her son was at his private school, transported at the outbreak of the war from the East coast to the middle of Dartmoor. She sat at the place she called "home" listening to wireless news from Germany. 
     This place was a service flat and as smart and noncommittal as herself, a set of five large rooms high up in the mansard floor of a brand-new block in Grosvenor Square. The decorators had been at work there while she was in France; the style was what passes for Empire in the fashionable world. Next year, had there been no war, she would have had it done over again during August. 
     That morning she had spent an hour with her brokers giving precise, prudent directions for the disposition of her fortune; she had lunched alone, listening to the radio from Europe; after lunch she had gone alone to the cinema in Curzon Street. It was darkening when she left the cinema and quite dark now outside, beyond the heavy crimson draperies which hung in a dozen opulent loops and folds, girded with gold cord, fringed with gold at the hem, over the new black shutters. Soon she would go out to dine with Margot at the Ritz. Peter was off somewhere and Margot was trying to get a party together for him.

     She mixed herself a large cocktail; the principal ingredients were vodka and Calvados; the decorators had left an electric shaker on the Pompeian side-table. It was their habit to litter the house where they worked with expensive trifles of this sort; parsimonious clients sent them back; the vaguer sort believed them to be presents for which they had forgotten to thank anyone, used them, broke them and paid for them a year later when the bills came in. Angela liked gadgets. She switched on the electric shaker and, when her drink was mixed, took the glass with her to the bathroom and drank it slowly in her bath.
     Angela never drank cocktails except in private; there was something about them which bore, so faintly as to be discernible to no one but herself, a suggestion of good fellowship and good cheer; an infinitely small invitation to familiarity -- derived perhaps from the days of Prohibition, when gin had ceased to be Hogarthian and had become chic; an aura of naughtiness, of felony compounded; a memory of her father's friends who sometimes had raised their glasses to her, of a man in a ship who had said "A tes beaux yeux." And so Angela, who hated human contact on any but her own terms, never drank cocktails except in solitude. Lately all her days seemed to be spent alone. 
     Steam from the bath formed in a mist, and later in great beads of water, on the side of the glass. She finished her cocktail and felt the fumes rise inside her. She lay for a long time in the water, scarcely thinking, scarcely feeling anything except the warm water round her and the spirit within her. She called for her maid, from next door, to bring her a cigarette; smoked it slowly to the end; called for an ash tray and then for a towel. Presently she was ready to face the darkness, and the intense cold, and Margot Metroland's dinner party.

     She noticed in the last intense scrutiny before her mirrors that her mouth was beginning to droop a little at the corners. It was not the disappointed pout that she knew in so many of her friends; it was the droop you sometimes saw in death masks, when the jaw had been set and the face had stiffened in lines which told those waiting round the bed that the will to live was gone. 
     At dinner she drank Vichy water and talked like a man. She said that France was no good any more and Peter used a phrase that was just coming into vogue, accusing her of being "fifth column." They went on to dance at the Suivi. She danced and drank her Vichy water and talked sharply and well like a very clever man. She was wearing a new pair of ear-rings -- an arrow set with a ruby point, the shaft a thin bar of emerald that seemed to transfix the lobe; she had designed them for herself and had called for them that morning on her way home from seeing her man of business. The girls in the party noticed Angela's ear-rings; they noticed everything about her clothes; she was the best-dressed woman there, as she usually was, wherever she went.

     She stayed to the end of the party and then returned to Grosvenor Square alone. Since the war there was no liftman on duty after midnight. She shut herself in, pressed the button for the mansard floor and rose to the empty, uncommunicative flat. There were no ashes to stir in the grate; illuminated glass coals glowed eternally in an elegant steel basket; the temperature of the rooms never varied, winter or summer, day or night. She mixed herself a large whiskey and water and turned on the radio. 
     Tirelessly, all over the world, voices were speaking in their own and in foreign tongues. She listened and fidgeted with the knob; sometimes she got a burst of music, once a prayer. Presently she fetched another whiskey and water. 
     Her maid lived out and had been told not to wait up. When she came in the morning she found Mrs. Lyne in bed but awake; the clothes she had worn the evening before had been carefully hung up, not broadcast about the carpet as they used sometimes to be. "I shan't be getting up this morning, Grainger," she said. "Bring the radio here and the newspapers." 
     Later she had her bath, returned to bed, took two tablets of Dial and slept, gently, until it was time to fit the black plywood screens into the window frames and hide them behind the velvet draperies. 

All Photographs by Georges Dambier, 1950s

1 comment:

Flapper Flickers + Silent Stanzas said...

You are always so open and honest about your life, and this reader appreciates it greatly. ^_^