Archive for May 9th, 2012

© 2012 by James Clark

Like Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks, John Huston was a film artist locked into a time and place where being beyond the pale involved pressures not merely implacable but imperial. Therein, his work poses absorbing questions about the function of such heavily guarded (thereby compromised, distorted) panache. What, for example, are we to make of Zsa-Zsa Gabor’s Jane Avril, holding forth, in Moulin Rouge (1952) (in a serpent-motif dress bringing to mind Bjork’s swan dress many years later), with a cabaret song that might have been written by Marcel Proust? “Wine can make you true/ But a man can make you truer.”

That surprisingly audacious “great personage” film carries a welter of overtures that were not supposed to reside in its era of presumed relatively uncomplicated interpersonal meanderings, despite efforts from the likes of Hawks and Wilder. (That a volcano of complication like Eugene O’Neill’s stage play, Long Day’s Journey into Night [written in 1941 but not produced until 1956] was very much to the fore, helps us to chart that era’s notion of such matters being only acceptable to the dangerous neurotics of Manhattan. Sydney Lumet’s domesticity-to-the-fore film production of O’Neill’s masterpiece garnered acting awards at the Cannes Festival in 1962. One of his principals was Dean Stockwell, who, a generation later, added very undomesticated touches to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.) Sure enough, we have a pathetic cripple (in the form of [more than merely gifted] artist, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec) whose vicissitudes tug at our heartstrings. Sure enough, on his deathbed, he hears his hitherto unencouraging father beg for forgiveness in the course of announcing to him that his work has been embraced by the Louvre. “I didn’t know…” the elder pleads. We even have a bit of Eisenhower-era whimsy in the form of dream-like figures from the good old days at the titular cabaret, paying him one last bouncy visit and making him smile. This, of course, (somewhat) constitutes the freighting of bathetic gratifications everyone was supposed to settle for at that historical juncture. However, enfolded in that last scene’s being a humbling of Lautrec-Père, for betting on the wrong horse, there is an earlier scene where Lautrec verbally slashes at a painter-friend, for worshipping “Leonardo” because the latter’s name was on a plaque signifying him as the painter of the Mona Lisa, as, more pointedly, signifying having made it big. (Lautrec’s dealer had the annoying [to Lautrec] habit of announcing, due to nibbles by arts hotshots, “You’re made, Henri!” [in being smiled upon by the likes of supposedly infallible employees of that A-list museum].) Such level-headedness would entail a less giddy comprehension of the nod toward resurrection in the final reverie. With a hooker he hoped to induce into a long haul, he was heard to marvel that the Mona Lisa is a treasure no one on earth could afford to buy, but that (in riposte to the money-mad gal’s sneer, “What good did that do [the manufacturer]?”) the artist was richly rewarded in having accomplished the marshalling of sensuous powers to the point of such potent grace. (more…)

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