Left: Production shot from The March of Time (1935–51). Right: Still from The March of Time (1935–51). J. Edgar Hoover.


LONG AFTER ITS 1935–51 theatrical life, The March of Time short-subject series remained the parodic model for naive Chamber of Commerce–style ballyhoo. (One Simpsons take ended with a cart-tugging dachshund “pulling for Springfield.”) But on its seventy-fifth anniversary, these ephemera remain compulsively watchable beyond camp anachronism—appealingly eager to please, they stop at little to pack curiosities, celebrities (historical and Hollywood), intrigue, trend proclaiming, and pontification into each monthly dispatch. The loosely grouped selections screening at the Museum of Modern Art (joined by a marathon on Turner Classic Movies) show that this “new kind of pictorial journalism” reflected a version of the world back to America with a facility and a plenitude that anticipated television, ranging across Leadbelly, Palestine, bootleg coal, auto safety, World War II crises, “arson squads in action,” beauty regimes, strikebreaking, and, of course, “dogs for sale.”

The Lumièresactualités and both studio and collective newsreels preceded The March of Time, which has been aptly characterized as the “magazine” to its “newspaper” precursors. Launched by Henry Luce’s Time magazine and the brainchild of future Life publisher Roy Larsen, it existed first as a radio show, colorfully (even raucously) reenacting news of the day with actors’ voices. Later, as with documentaries of the period, voices ruddered Louis de Rochemont’s film version, guiding us through the antifascist exposés of “Inside Nazi Germany” or providing a teen’s inside-scoop commentary on “Teen-Age Girls.” Unlike mere compilations of footage, the productions involved research, reenactments, and music, becoming so elaborate that even with hundreds of theaters participating, March of Time lost money and almost shut down.

The March of Time template persists today in invent-an-arc documentaries and TV news. (The 1950 reel “Mid-Century: Halfway to Where” becomes a nearly ludicrous exercise in all-nighter-term-paper transition as it leaps from spectator sports to music to psychiatry to total war within minutes.) And while the series was progressive in some regards, it’s hard to forget Robert Coover’s jibe in The Public Burning (1977) at its parent magazine’s role as ridiculous national historian. But a lot can be forgiven by the sight of Marlene Dietrich, in “Show Business at War,” taken for a twirl by a star-struck soldier during a Hollywood visit for the boys. As each episode declared, admirably incontrovertible: “Time... marches on!”

Nicolas Rapold

“The March of Time, Seventy-fifth Anniversary” runs September 1–10 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. For more details, click here.

All Quiet

08.24.10

Josef von Sternberg, The Docks of New York, 1928, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 76 minutes. Left: A Girl (Betty Compson). Right: A Girl and The Stoker (Betty Compson and George Bancroft).


AM I LIVING in a dream world if I say that the shadows and fog and gazing faces of The Docks of New York feel realer, more fully realized, more urgently alive with thought and feeling, than most movies aspiring to realism? Josef von Sternberg’s 1928 silent has usually been described as the first full unfurling of his sensuously lit fatalism, the consummate style that leads otherwise rational people to parrot Sternberg’s pronouncements that he was Miss Marlene Dietrich. But it’s rare to find portrayals, in or out of silents, as immediate and finely rendered as the frank desire and force of will embodied by stoker Bill (ex-sailor George Bancroft) or the hard-bitten weariness of waifish barroom beauty Mae (Betty Compson), whom he marries on a one-night shore leave that Sternberg turns into a lifetime.

Docks of New York—set mostly in a bar and flophouse, replete with textured surfaces (cracked walls, strung netting, arcing captain’s wheel)—is in fact a period piece that looks back to an earlier age of the city’s waterfront and dock-wallopers. The Last Command (1928), too, lives mostly in the past—dominated by an hour-long flashback to Imperial Russia that’s twice the length of the story’s crass Hollywood present. The two films are grouped with Sternberg’s mercurial gangster pathbreaker Underworld (1927) in a new suite of restored silents from the Criterion Collection (whose DVD interviews and video essays demonstrate, among other things, the need for a release of his poetic, proto-neorealist 1925 debut feature, The Salvation Hunters). Sternberg was a model of absolute technical mastery—before directing, he supervised an entire film lab. Repeated migratory flights between Old World and New were undergirded by unstinting determination, readable in the American screen dreams and demimondes he wrought with a European sense of exquisite tragic decay, between Frank Borzage and Nicholas Ray.

Before Dietrich’s heavy lids there was Evelyn Brent’s “glum” and “sinister” look, as one early account had it. She’s outfitted in feathers (all over) as mop-haired Bull Weed’s moll in Underworld, drawn too by the street-professor (Clive Brook) her gangsta fella takes under his massive wing. In The Last Command, she’s a revolutionary in furs, in low-cut white, visiting-the-general gown, in slick black flip-collar radical chic (the kind that, briefly, in the future, would connote the future). “Instead of flat lighting, shadows,” explained Sternberg. “In the place of pasty masks, faces in relief.” Was it really this simple: the dazzling-shabby tiger-print blouse of Mae’s self-sacrificing friend in Docks, set off against Bill’s shiny black raincoat that’s so excitingly streaked with light, as if it’s actually visibly landing on him as he swats down a pushy bartender? And throughout and about the docks, seemingly all the steam ever exhaled by all the tugboats and trains in Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler’s Manhatta (1921).

Underworld ends with something close to wartime bombardment—Bull versus the world, holed up in his hideout—and The Last Command too explodes with tumult: in the flashback, the psychotic czar-ejecting rabble, and at either end, the brash hustle of a Hollywood studio. Bridging the two is Emil Jannings, as the imperial general turned limelight extra with the role of a lifetime: himself. (The intertitle tends to get laughs: “And so the backwash of a tortured nation had carried still another extra to Hollywood.”) Under the studio cameras, he is triggered by a czarist anthem and a wind machine: He rages forth with the full force of Mother Russia, and collapses—one more perfect moment of performance captured before dying. Pull back camera; roll end logo.

Nicolas Rapold

“3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg” is now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection. For more details, click here.

Left: Eric Rohmer, Le Rayon vert (Summer), 1986, still from a color film in 35 mm, 98 minutes. Right: Eric Rohmer, Ma Nuit chez Maud (My Night at Maud’s), 1969, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 110 minutes. Maud (Françoise Fabian).


Love desires nothing but itself.
—Lycidas, in Les Amours d’Astrée et de Céladon
(The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, 2007)

IN HIS LATTER YEARS, the French filmmaker Eric Rohmer—who died on January 11, at the age of eighty-nine—took on the terse, attenuated air of a Jansenist abbot. Lean, austere, his eyes a cool, penetrating blue, Rohmer embodied the rationalism and restraint for which his cinematic style had become famous. The elder statesman of the Nouvelle Vague, born a decade before Truffaut and Godard, Rohmer also served as the New Wave’s sage, resisting aesthetic and political fashion to maintain his chastely ironic vision of amorous folly. Whether Rohmer’s fidelité to a modest theme and manner, stated early and slightly refined throughout a half-century-long career that seemed oblivious to worldly tumult, was resolute or reactionary, the art of a miniaturist master or of a trivial philosophe cautiously tending his square centimeter of bourgeois insight, depended on whether one felt, as Rohmer once claimed, that the artist’s role was to organize pleasure. From the hot August streets of his first feature film, Le Signe du lion (The Sign of Leo, 1959), to the radiant arcadia of fifth-century Gaul in his last, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, Rohmer’s sun-flooded settings signaled his congenial approach, which was often mistaken for inconsequence. Paradoxically, the very constriction of the director’s regard, the intent limitation of his style and purview, resulted in plenitude, a gracious bounty of social perception and, indeed, of highly organized pleasure.

Less aggressive, confessional, and iconoclastic than his New Wave confreres, Rohmer did, however, share their voracious cinephilia. He made his mark first as a superb critic and later (from 1957 to 1963) as the editor of Cahiers du Cinéma, championing such directors as Murnau, Hawks, Hitchcock, and Preminger. (One wonders whether the bare-breasted, swinging Swede in Rohmer’s Le Rayon vert [Summer, 1986] is an homage to her amoral, sunburned antecedent in Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse [1958].) Having come late to films—“Until I was sixteen I hadn’t seen a thing,” he confessed—Rohmer absorbed and exhibited his influences in a manner subtler than did Godard, Truffaut, or Rivette. Rohmer’s Sign of Leo and Rivette’s Paris nous appartient (Paris Belongs to Us, 1960), both first features and both tales of accelerating misfortune centered on an American exile in Paris and set in a series of bohemian garrets, differ greatly in tone. Rohmer and Rivette were each influenced by Fritz Lang, but Rohmer’s Seine-side comedy of unexpected inheritance owes far more to Renoir, especially Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), while Rivette’s self-regarding yarn of intensifying paranoia showboats its determinants in Langian compositions of stairwells and rooftops and in a clip of the Tower of Babel sequence from Metropolis (1927).

Like lovesick Puritans, the Nouvelle Vague directors praised their Hollywood gods in Cahiers but maintained an antagonistic, admonitory relationship with American cinema, hewing more to the ascetic lessons of Cahiers founder André Bazin and of Roberto Rossellini, to the “moral attitude,” as the latter called it, of Neorealism. Rohmer imbibed those lessons both as a spiritual guide—he shared his teachers’ Catholic beliefs—and as aesthetic instruction. However stylized or artificial his cinema would occasionally become, particularly in his historical films and literary adaptations (e.g., Die Marquise von O . . . [1976], Perceval le Gallois [1978], L’Anglaise et le duc [The Lady and the Duke, 2001], and Astrea and Celadon), Rohmer maintained an almost religious adherence to realism, to a simple, unmannered rendering of the world whose clarity, plain arrangement, and quiet precision bespoke the rationality of his thought. (He shared with Robert Bresson not only an intense privateness and Catholic, conservative bent but also a formal propensity for the 50-mm focal length, “which [most] closely resembles human vision,” according to Rohmer’s longtime cinematographer, Néstor Almendros.) This lucid and unobtrusive realism employed natural light and the long takes idealized by Bazin, rarely ruptured by shot-countershot or analytic cutting, depending instead on slow, discreet zooms that pinion Rohmer’s characters within the frame, where they are prodded to disclose their inner beings, which they falteringly, sometimes fatuously do, often unable to discern their true selves in the verbiage they expend on the task.

Yael Hersonski, A Film Unfinished, 2010, stills from a black-and-white and color film, 89 minutes.


IN MAY 1942, a Third Reich film crew arrived at the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest of the Nazis’ heavily guarded urban enclosures designed for the separation, containment, and inhuman deprivation of Jews before their ultimate transfer to extermination camps. It was there that this unit shot an unfinished propaganda film titled Ghetto, footage of which was first discovered in 1954 in an East German film vault. To this day, despite the Third Reich’s meticulous record keeping, little is known about the production.

Israeli director Yael Hersonski has now made this document the center of A Film Unfinished, a profound and disturbing investigation into the uses of cinema. Here the original footage is interwoven with transcripts from the official questioning of cameraman Willy Wist, the only Third Reich crew member ever identified from the production; entries about the filming from the diaries of Ghetto inhabitants, including Jewish Council director Adam Czerniaków; alternate takes and outtakes of the “final” product found separately in 1998; and reactions to the film from Ghetto and Holocaust survivors. “In what ways can archival footage filmed by the perpetrators testify to the suffering of the victims?” Hersonski writes in a statement. “And in the case of Nazi propaganda footage, where does cinematic manipulation end and reality begin?” Ghetto is filled with images of the Nazis twisting the extreme plight of oppressed Jews toward perverse anthropological and racist ends: as documents of customs and religious practices of a soon-to-be-destroyed race (in the case of scenes featuring circumcisions and ritual bathing) and as proof of the Jews’ inherent barbarity (via scenes focusing on the few people able to live in some measure of comfort even as their fellow citizens were starving in the streets).

As proven by Wist’s admissions, Czerniaków’s diary entries, and the alternate takes, sequences were carefully fabricated by the film crew (some of whom were accidentally captured in the frame), who, with the aid of SS troops, forced Jews into demeaning performances at gunpoint. The Nazis also ended up documenting the atrocious results of the very conditions they created: emaciated citizens living in abject squalor, corpses lying in the middle of crowded markets, the dead unceremoniously shoveled into mass graves. Hersonski has stated that the anguished gaze of the Jews caught on camera attests to their resistance against oppressors who tried to strip them of dignity, even on celluloid. But the most moving moments of A Film Unfinished attest to the perseverance of that dignity after living through the evil so callously delivered by the Nazis. While watching the unbearable images from Ghetto, one elderly survivor admits to a time during which she was so traumatized by what happened she couldn’t even cry. “Today I am human,” she whispers. “Today I can cry.”

Michael Joshua Rowin

A Film Unfinished plays August 18–31 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.

B Cool

08.11.10

Left: Giuliano Montaldo, Machine Gun McCain, 1969, color film in 35 mm, 94 minutes. Production still. Right: Jonathan Kaplan, White Line Fever, 1975, color film in 35 mm, 90 minutes. Production still. Carrol Jo Hummer (Jan-Michael Vincent).


WITH THE ONGOING blockbuster season continuing to crowd out healthy B movies at the box office, the sequel to last year’s successful “William Lustig Presents” series at Anthology Film Archives provides desperately needed alternatives. Former exploitation filmmaker and current head of cult DVD label Blue Underground, Lustig once again revives forgotten genre treasures, largely made in the 1970s, a decade in which tough, action-oriented flicks were often economical and ingenious rather than bloated and uninspired. (For a quick compare-and-contrast, see Sylvester Stallone’s steroid-era The Expendables, also out this week.) A few selections reinforce the pre–video era B’s reputation as unknowing camp (Charles B. Pierce’s The Town That Dreaded Sunset [1977], which awkwardly combines true-crime serial killing reenactments with Southern hee-haw slapstick), but others shed light on the era’s no-nonsense visual punch and oft-overlooked moral righteousness. In famed and recently deceased cinematographer Jack Cardiff’s Dark of the Sun (1968), for instance, a torn Rod Taylor stars as a mercenary who develops a conscience amid the bloody chaos of the Congo civil war in the early 1960s. The violence is shocking but the tone remains titillation-free, right up to the protagonist’s devastatingly costly redemption.

Likewise, White Line Fever (1975) and Defiance (1980) cast affable Airwolf star Jan-Michael Vincent as a working-class hero, violently unionizing against the corrupt Southwest trucking industry in the former and standing up to a merciless Lower East Side gang in the latter. Local detail and life experience mean everything to these films: Fever’s post-Vietnam dream of settling down and raising a family pumps blood into Vincent’s blacktop-shredding, shotgun-wielding outrage, while Defiance deflates the romanticized myth of the early Koch years’ pre-gentrified “realness” by unblinkingly documenting a diverse community’s helplessness amid deteriorating streets and unchecked crime—before, of course, rallying behind disciplined sailor Vincent and local social club leader Danny Aiello.

Defiance was directed by the sadly unsung John Flynn, responsible for two major highlights of last year’s Lustig series, Rolling Thunder (1977) and The Outfit (1973). This year, Giuliano Montaldo’s brilliant spaghetti gangster film Machine Gun McCain (1969) acts as a brother of sorts to The Outfit: Both feature a macho, bullshit-averse professional criminal battling the Mafia almost single-handedly for revenge and profit. In McCain, the titular automatic-weapon specialist is played by none other than John Cassevetes, who brings along members of his own stock company, with Peter Falk as an ambitious mobster who goes over the head of his boss and Gena Rowlands as McCain’s hard-bitten ex-partner and wife. The rueful third-act reunion between Rowlands and Cassavetes isn’t as affecting as his interaction with screen son Pierluigi Aprà, an up-and-coming con who springs his legendary dad from jail to carry out the traitorous theft of a Vegas casino. Looking down in disgust on his son’s two-bit operation—“Small time—no dignity!”—Cassavetes enacts an Oedipal rejection that isn’t so much “badass” as reptilian in its pragmatism and ferocity.

For whatever reason—curatorial purposefulness or generic coincidence—several of Lustig’s picks focus on filial anxiety. Released the same year as McCain and also produced in Italy with an Ennio Morricone score (all mouth harp and twang guitar), The Sicilian Clan pits a retiring crime-family paterfamilias, played by Jean Gabin, against Alain Delon, as the cocky murderer he helps escape from prison. Temporarily and reluctantly adopted into the three-son clan, Delon double-crosses not out of greed but lust, seducing Gabin’s daughter-in-law (Irina Demick) after bludgeoning an eel on a rock in a subtle display of sexual frustration. Though the film’s daring jewel-heist centerpiece is now overdetermined (hijacked planes are flown onto a New York City highway), the dynamic between legends Gabin and Delon—and Lino Ventura as a stressed detective unsuccessfully weaning himself off cigarettes—remains tersely captivating.

Though the least taut, the most fascinating film of the series might be The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977), pulp maestro Larry Cohen’s biopic-as-exposé of the FBI mastermind and Fourth Amendment adversary. Revelations about the personal life of Hoover—portrayed by Broderick Crawford as a prudish, mother-clinging closet case—are now well-known lore, but Cohen draws convincing connections between Hoover’s sexual repression and political obtrusiveness, between private denial and public paranoia. The film makes a case for the ’70s B as both psychological and social muckraker: Shot in Hoover’s real DC stomping grounds with production values that lower any realism to movie-of-the-week quality, Files still bristles with a late-counterculture antiauthoritarianism that trumps most of its Hollywood contemporaries’ attempts (All the President’s Men), and then some.

Michael Joshua Rowin

William Lustig Presents” runs August 12–20 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.

Ermanno Olmi, The Tree of Wooden Clogs, 1978, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 186 minutes.


AT THE START of Ermanno Olmi’s 1978 cinematic stay with peasants on a turn-of-the-century mezzadria, a farmer is up in arms about paying for his tiny son to attend school miles away. When the first day comes, and the boy walks through the courtyard shared by several families, Olmi tracks him via the father’s anxious point of view, all the way up to the gate. Money is one of his concerns—the estate landlord receives a percentage of all that is earned and produced—along with the loss of another pair of hands. But the felt worry is over the boy’s absence from the farm’s interdependent group, every day.

While “work” has long been the watchword for Olmi’s oeuvre, his three-hour-long Palme d’Or winner makes us aware of the families’ bonds of community and the space they share. Women work at looms singing together, men mobilize to slaughter a pig, and at night everyone gathers in one dim room to do piecework, chat, sing, and tell stories. A Lombardy native like his characters, Olmi doesn’t try to drive home their connectedness with showy solidarity or double-bind plots (though there’s a lot of ennobling, harmonizing Bach). When one family loses a father, the matriarch picks up and makes do, and the movie’s sweetest moment is when an eccentric oldster confides in his granddaughter the secret behind his early tomatoes.

Olmi took a year to edit the film, which he shot, to quote Kent Jones, “with the care that a Quattrocento master would have lavished on an episode in the life of Christ.” Not everyone has been as admiring: Dave Kehr sees Marxist sentimentalism in what’s “less an advance over the standard film festival peasant epic than an unusually accomplished rendition of it.” But Olmi, who most recently made a documentary about the slow-food movement, doesn’t omit ruptures from the canvas: A newlywed couple, journeying to Milan, is almost run down by cavalry charges in the streets. And the convent orphan whom they adopt is pronounced, unequivocally, “a peasant’s son” now, not a gentleman’s—which at least is one way of encapsulating Bernardo Bertolucci’s rich-man-poor-man capital-e Epic 1900 from two years before.

Nicolas Rapold

The Tree of Wooden Clogs plays Wednesday, August 11 at 7 PM at the 92YTribeca at 200 Hudson in New York. For more details, click here.

Left: F. W. Murnau, Nosferatu, 1922, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 85 minutes. Graf Orlok (Max Schreck). Right: Werner Herzog, Nosferatu the Vampyre, 1979, color film in 35 mm, 107 minutes. Production still. Count Dracula and Lucy Harker (Klaus Kinski and Isabelle Adjani).


AS EVIDENCED BY BAMcinématek’s thirty-three-film program “Bela Lugosi’s Dead, Vampires Live Forever,” blood-sucking fiends have long been ideal subjects for filmmakers experimenting in uncharted stylistic territory. F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) inaugurates Bram Stoker’s famous character on-screen by marrying a Romantic, somnambulant atmosphere with the eerie, startling camera techniques of German Expressionism, while Carl Theodor Dreyer’s sui generis Vampyr (1933) plumbs vampire mythology to find disorienting spatial configurations and oddly unstable perspectives (including, unforgettably, the point of view from a corpse being carried inside a coffin).

Indeed, the vampire was avant-garde from the get-go, and in comparison with, say, the zombie or the slasher, this creature has been relatively immune to the long-term stultifying effects of mainstream formula. Horror master Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) delineated the classic tropes of movie vampires by way of Bela Lugosi’s exaggerated, eastern European–accented line readings and Universal’s haunted-house sets of cobwebs and bats, but since then even the genre’s derivatives and redos have yielded unconventional rewards. The campy schlock of Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1965), for instance, is a bizarre kaleidoscope of Pop art set and costume design, while Werner Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu (1979) rivals its source for unsettling otherwordliness. (Along with original Nosferatu Max Schreck, Klaus Kinski’s grotesque lead performance is among the most convincingly embodied undead performances ever committed to the screen.) Hollywood efforts both unintentionally overwrought (Tony Scott’s The Hunger [1983[) and startlingly hallucinatory (Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula [1992]) feature jarring montage sequences and sensual superimpositions, and though the vampire film seems to inevitably breed voluptuous, delirious aesthetic experiences (see also Michael Almereyda’s beautifully shot but structurally sloppy bohemian take in Nadja [1994]), sometimes the strangest and most exotic entries are those that have chosen a quietly brooding tact, as with Claire Denis’s gruesome but intimate Trouble Every Day (2001).

Left: George Romero, Martin, 1977, black-and-white and color film in 16 mm, 95 minutes. Production still. Martin (John Amplas). Right: Michael Almereyda, Nadja, 1994, black-and-white film in 35 mm, 93 minutes. Production still. Renfield and Nadja (Karl Geary and Elina Löwensohn).


The vampire’s dual nature—life-draining parasite or blood-bonding lover—has lent the myth to multivalent meditations on race (William Crain’s blaxploitation riff Blacula [1972]); power (Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark [1987]); infectious or contagious disease (Ubaldo Ragona’s economical The Last Man on Earth [1964], based on Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend); the Other (Guy Maddin’s typically breakneck-speed Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary [2002]); dependency (Abel Ferrera’s The Addiction [1995]); and homosexuality (no fewer than three films in the series feature lesbianism, including no-budget soft porn The Velvet Vampire [1971]; sadly, Neil Jordan’s flawed but fascinatingly homoerotic and AIDS-haunted Interview with the Vampire is not accounted for). Vampires have also been subject to some surprisingly witty and irreverent spoofs. The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), an affectionate send-up of Hammer Film Productions’s Dracula series (three of which are also included here), throws into relief the underappreciated goofy side of “serious” Roman Polanski horror efforts like Rosemary’s Baby. James Woods’s grouchy, sneering turn as a Vatican-sanctioned stake driver makes John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998) great unpretentious, Showtime-level stuff, while Robert Bierman’s Koch-era yuppie satire Vampire’s Kiss (1988) succeeds almost entirely by virtue of Nicolas Cage, in one of his first truly hysterical performances, as a lunatic, love-deprived boss from hell.

The timing of BAMcinématek’s program—less than a month and a half after the release of the latest Twilight film and right in the middle of the third season of True Blood—begs the question: Is there a future for big-screen vampires beyond glossy soap operas? With its arty, languorous pace and Scandinavian gloom, many will point to Swedish import Let the Right One In (2009) as a corrective, but that film’s vampire-as-best-buddy fable of adolescent angst isn’t much more challenging in its approach to vampire lore than its more soft-focus American counterparts. Now that vampires have become unmistakably teen-targeted, perhaps it makes sense to revisit Martin (1977), George Romero’s masterpiece about a “high-school age”—but actually much older—vampire whose saturnine loneliness stems from the knowledge that “there’s no real magic, ever.” No aversions to crosses, garlic, or sunlight; no transformative powers; no mysterious seductiveness; not even fangs—just a curse to crave blood and the longing to be normal. Suffused with Rust Belt economic hardship and Catholic guilt, concerned with the achingly brutal truths of sex and death, Martin provides solid evidence that vampires can be sensitive without being bloodless.

Michael Joshua Rowin

Bela Lugosi’s Dead, Vampires Live Forever” runs at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn August 4–September 30, 2010. For more details, click here.

Howard Hawks, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953, color film in 35 mm, 91 minutes. Left and right: Lorelei Lee and Dorothy Shaw (Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell).


With her glamorous brunette co-star Jane Russell, there was the Blond Actress blowing kisses and waving into spotlights, her eyes animated now and her rouged cheeks glowing. [. . .] As the two lavishly dressed glamour girls stood on the platform beaming and waving at the crowd, both stitched into straitjacket low-cut gowns, both breathing in small measured gasps, the Blond Actress said out of the corner of her lipstick mouth, “Jane! Us two could cause a riot, guess how?” Jane giggled. “Strip?” The Blond Actress gave her a sidelong flirty look and jagged her, lightly, just below her enormous jutting breast. “No, baby. Kiss.” —Joyce Carol Oates, Blonde

“IT DIDN’T HAVE NORMAL SEX,” Howard Hawks once said of his great 1953 musical, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the only film that Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell made together—and one of the few Hollywood musicals that feature women as the two leads. Molly Haskell, continuing the emphasis on aberrant behavior, praised the director for “creating a whole world which revolves on a principle of unnatural sexuality.”

Not normal, unnatural: code for lesbian? Whatever Hawks and Haskell meant, their cryptic, open-ended terms resonate profoundly for certain fans of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which will screen at Film Forum in New York in a new 35-mm restoration August 6 through 12. Perhaps unwittingly, their adjectives underscore the movie’s intense sapphic appeal, leading some same-sexing viewers, while watching Monroe and Russell, to drift off into erotic reveries like those found in Oates’s novel. Though the musical has long been considered the cultural bailiwick of gay men, daughters of darkness can claim GPB as one of cinema’s greatest celebrations of a brunette butch–blonde femme coupling.

GPB chronicles the adventures of two voluptuous showgirls, best friends Lorelei Lee (Monroe) and Dorothy Shaw (Russell), first aboard an ocean liner en route to France and then in Paris. On the surface, GPB concerns itself with hetero pursuits. But in Hawks’s film—based on the 1949 Broadway musical co-written by Anita Loos, adapting her own 1925 novel—the men, frequently enfeebled, insignificant characters, are all but superfluous. Lorelei’s boyfriend, Gus (Tommy Noonan), is a nebbishy, bespectacled millionaire unable to stand up to his own father. Dorothy’s hot for Malone, a private detective partial to pipes and sweater-vests, and played by null presence Elliott Reid. (“If we could have got a great big strong hunk of manhood, we probably would have used him, but we couldn’t get one and we had to make the movie,” Hawks said of Reid’s casting.) A jowly, elderly diamond magnate, Sir Francis Beekman (Charles Coburn), who goes by “Piggy,” flirts with Lorelei until his domineering missus shows up. In Russell’s solo number, “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love?,” meant to show off Dorothy’s lust for the entire US Olympic team, she sings to a highly indifferent group of muscle queens more interested in wrestling each other than in doing anything with her. Perhaps the most libidinal male aboard the SS Île de France is seven-year-old Henry Spofford III (George Winslow), who responds to Lorelei’s “animal magnetism.”

The real couple of GPB is Dorothy and Lorelei, the only characters who sing, dance, and harmonize together. During the film’s opening number, “Two Little Girls from Little Rock,” the duo are inextricably linked through sartorial excess (feathered hats, flaming orange-red sequined dresses), curves, wiggles, and shakes. During this song, Dorothy frequently touches Lorelei, who coyly gazes into her partner’s eyes and coos suggestively, “I learned an awful lot in Little Rock.” Surely Lorelei’s sentimental education in Arkansas included a tutorial in the love that dared not speak its name.

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Howard Hawks, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953. “Two Little Girls From Little Rock,” Lorelei Lee and Dorothy Shaw (Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell).

Every frame of Hawks’s musical focuses on the “creamy overflow” (to borrow a phrase from a celebrity columnist writing at the time of the film’s release) of Monroe’s and Russell’s bodies; in his 1973 biography Marilyn, Norman Mailer notes that his subject will never “appear so fucky again” as she does in GPB. The physiques of Jane/Dorothy and Marilyn/Lorelei are defined by ripened mouths, breasts, hips—ample pulchritude that sometimes exceeds the spectacle of the musical numbers they perform together. Uncontainable and unclassifiable, the sexual energy they exude dominates every scene the two women share—a fucky force constantly reciprocated between them. As Lorelei shimmies during the “When Love Goes Wrong” number in the film’s final third, Dorothy, her eyes transfixed on her friend, shouts, “Do it, honey, do it!” before letting out a mellifluous, orgasmic howl. Later, to protect her, Dorothy will stand trial in Paris night court as Lorelei, a highly charged episode of infatuation in which identities dissolve. Even in the final scene, during what is supposed to be a double wedding between Gus/Lorelei and Malone/Dorothy, the grooms are extraneous; the film ends on a two-shot of the women essentially marrying each other.

If the onscreen rapport between the two actresses invites blue fantasies by lavender ladies, what was it like when the cameras stopped rolling? “We were both Geminis and really complimented [sic] each other,” Russell remembers in her autobiography, Jane Russell: My Path & My Detours (1985). Monroe, not yet a major star, received second billing to Russell, and $500 a week to her colleague’s $200,000 total. And without Russell, Monroe might never have been able to complete the film that changed her career forever; wracked with insecurities on set, Monroe was finally assuaged by Russell’s tough love: “I’d stand in her doorway and say, ‘Come on, Blondl, let’s go . . .’ ” Russell recalls the rehearsals for the dance numbers as “hard, sweaty work.” Or, if you prefer, fucky.

Melissa Anderson

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes runs at Film Forum in New York August 6–12. For more details, click here.