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Blue Windows Behind The Stars: Hardcore


Near the end of Paul Schrader’s Hardcore, an incandescently angry George C. Scott busts through thin, pasteboard walls with such focus and furious dedication that it looks like the kind of perverse, surrealistic nightmare that a wrathful Christian would have. It’s also strangely beautiful. He’s in the House of Bondage and Scott’s Calvinist Jake Van Dorn is chasing after a tight-jeaned, feathered-haired pornographer named Tod (Gary Rand Graham). The younger man breaks open the walls first with Jake raging and rampaging behind him, tumbling into spaces, pre or post-coitus. As Tod pushes his youthful, fit body through each wall, the older and bigger Jake bashes on along right after him, smashing through every partition and decimating the private sex rooms in this supposedly sturdy bondage lair. Jake tumbles into the rooms awash in the glow of each space’s different colored lights – green to blue to red – and this has to annoy him. He’s already proven in an earlier scene back in Grand Rapids, Michigan, before he descended into red light hell searching for his runaway daughter, that he’s particular about colors. He cleverly and with an obsessive need for control manipulates his female display designer out of a certain shade of blue: “Don’t you think it’s a little too bright?” he asks, rhetorically. When she asks if he wants her to tone it down, he pulls reverse psychology on her and suggests a big stripe across the back wall. “No, that would be much too overpowering,” she says. He agrees with what he already agrees with. He asks what shade of blue it is – “Pavonine” she answers. Pavonine? Pavonine is  a shade resembling a peacock. We now understand why he’s so put off by this hue. Or maybe he secretly loves it. That peacock blue has got to go.


So here is Jake pursuing Tod, a cock of the walk himself, after taking in excessive plumage during his underworld journey – more than he’s seen in his lifetime, including his own daughter in a hardcore 8mm porno called “Slave of Love.” Jake’s busting through walls so intensely we’re worried the entire structure will crash down on him. He can’t lose the chase. Though we almost fear watching what will happen to the man on the other end of Jake’s ire, no matter how sleazy and shitty that man is, we want Jake to catch up to him and knock him around. Because . . . he’s gotten this far. We’re yearning for his brutal release and the movie knows we yearn for this. This space, this delicately walled space hosting all kinds of pleasure and pain, serves those seeking bondage, humiliation, fear – things that require a safe word. Watching fury-filled Jake crash through each wall makes you wonder how many customers would be aroused by this spectacle. Or would that safe word be screamed out the moment a client saw Jake’s furious, pulsating face? We’ve already seen the biblically named dungeon doms, Faith, Hope and Charity, panic and scream in their black lingerie.


Fittingly, when Jake and Tod spill out onto the San Francisco street and into the outside real world – punching and rolling down a hilled sidewalk with garbage flying everywhere – Jack Nitzsche’s mind-bending, brilliant score is drowned by the sounds of celluloid flickering through a projector. The other times we’ve heard that sound (that I can recall) are first when Jake is tortured through his daughter’s porn film, enduring a father’s worst nightmare in that privately rented theater – famously and heartbreakingly yelling, “Turn it off. Turn it off. Turn it off!” The next time is when he watches the black & white snuff film starring his little girl’s boyfriend, the villainous Ratan (Marc Alaimo), in which a young woman is killed. On the street, the sound spikes the picture without a film showing, an interesting auditory decision. Is Jake so possessed by what he’s seen that he’s now hearing projectors in his head? Or are we so absorbed in this violence that the flickering sounds natural? Am I actually hearing this? Have I lost my mind? Jake finally forces Tod to submit by bashing his face into a pole.


It’s a powerfully concentrated, vivid sequence that intertwines myriad issues Scott’s God-fearing, distraught daddy is wrestling with, sometimes literally, as he shoves, shakes, punches and stomps his way around the porno world. If he’s not a physical man when it comes to sex, he’s presumably got no problem (enough to stop anyway) about expressing his body through violence, unleashing his wrath when the blood hits his brain. If his blood is hitting anywhere else, he shuts that shit down and sublimates carnality through brutality, its own kind of intercourse. The wrath of God is holy and justified. Rarely is a human’s wrath holy (justified is another question), but Jake fixes his fury on sinners like a divine power, impatient to wait for God. Romans 12:19: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’’ Jake snarls: “I’m not gonna let this Tod slip through my hands! Now where is he?” The vulnerable young porn actress and booth girl, Niki (a wonderful Season Hubley) who is helping him, the one who just ditched her pimp and is latching onto Jake with a veneer of streetwise toughness, responds with worry: “But then you’ll forget about me!” His answer is brutal – he smacks Niki across the face and holds a clenched fist over her while grabbing her by the throat – and on a bed. He then kisses her on the forehead and reassures her. Why some critics think it unrealistic that Jake isn’t tempted by sex within this milieu shows that, perhaps, they don’t understand how drunk on violence this guy really is and how intimate that brutality feels. Jake’s spraying his anger all over the fucking place.


In fact, the Midwestern Christian square, who really isn’t square at all, is nearly becoming Niki’s new pimp (based on their power dynamic) and seems on the precipice of violence overflowing into sexual pleasure. But not quite yet. He’s about to find his daughter and he’ll leave Niki behind. And so, maybe he’ll close that box. Or not. But, now, there are too many colors in this red-light-land, ones alien to the snow-covered Calvinist world he came from, colors he cannot control, and his rage bursts not merely for those harming his daughter, but for those he’s likely harmed him before his descent. Maybe himself? Where is this violence coming from beyond his fixed fury of finding his girl? Why did his wife leave him? Why does his daughter hate him enough to take off with, not just a pornographer, but a guy who makes snuff films? It’s an extraordinary story and works like some paranoid fever dream and, yet, thanks to Scott and Hubley (and Peter Boyle and Dick Sargent) it feels rooted in an odd, familiar reality. We feel like we know or have known a few of these people.

But how well do we know Jake? He’s a complicated mystery and both Scott and Schrader intelligently keep him that way. Even as he discusses his ideology via the five points of Calvinism, he harbors some deep deep muck inside. There’s a lot more to Jake (and intuitive Niki figures this out – that his wife didn’t die, as he said she did, she instead bailed on him). And so, his violence, his discretion and his faith in this faithless world are fascinating and almost exotic when compared to his current surroundings. Explaining those points a.k.a TULIP (“T, for total depravity  . . .” etc.) he’s strangely charming – he smiles and delights in his faith, but he’s unwavering and strong; he’s even attractive as this unusual, virile Calvinist and perhaps attractive to Niki, sexually or paternally – or both. Only in his last scene do we hear him apologize and confess culpability to his daughter’s fleeing and we’re not even sure how we feel about that.

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What helps make the film so unforgettable is how much we wrestle with our feelings – ethical, sexual, religious if we’re religious or not and, just, how we feel about our hero. We don’t buy their happy ending (and Schrader himself wanted a different ending – his original found the daughter dying in a car accident unrelated to the porn world, a terrifically downbeat ending that can’t even blame pornography on her death). And yet, we don’t have to buy it. I feel like it works even with the weird, tacked on ending because questions linger as father and daughter walk back to their car, ready to return to downhome Grand Rapids. Like The Searchers’ Ethan Edwards (it’s no secret this film was inspired by Ford’s classic), he’s likely going to wander through his life lonely and broken. There’s no way he’ll return from this experience normal and she won’t either (Kristin, played by Ilah Davis) and he wasn’t normal to begin with. Whatever normal means.


We see glimpses of his lonely “normalcy” at the beginning of the picture during which Jake spends Christmas with his Calvinist friends and family. He has his daughter there but no wife and he seems like he’s been keeping it together for . . . how long? We don’t know. There’s something sad about this man. These scenes leading up to his daughter running off (or being kidnapped) during a church trip to California are fascinating, subtly funny and poignant. Schrader (who based this on his own background in Calvinism and his father, and set the movie in his own hometown, Grand Rapids) is taking their faith seriously; he’s not mocking it. When Jake and his brother-in-law, Wes (Sargent) hire Boyle’s boastful sleazy private detective, Mast, their innocence or, perhaps, lack of connection to the world he comes from is disarmingly touching – they sit with him nervously, hoping he tracks down the teenage girl and your heart breaks a little that they even have to be there. When Jake has taken matters into his own hands, going in deep to locate his daughter, Wes comes to see him in a divey Los Angeles motel, seriously concerned. A stony Jake hugs him and tells him to leave him alone. The furtiveness of Wes, and that Jake knows he cares about him is moving and sweet and unexpected – a balm he cannot handle. He’s got to stay, well, hard.


When Wes re-hires Mast (Jake fired him in a humorous scene in which Mast was caught indulging with a young woman: “Get out!” Jake orders. Mast protests: “But this is my apartment!”), you again feel for Wes. Even if you’re not anti-pornography (and I’m not, but one can see the complexity of one’s own feelings towards the life and what it can do to people), you want poor Wes to get the hell out of that damn place and go back home. Some people aren’t made for this. Fueled by righteous anger and something probably he even can’t even figure out, Jake, in his own way, is. You’re not sure while watching Jake fake-audition actors, disguised in a wig and moustache, clad in swinger-looking clothes and a gold chain, you can’t help but laugh at how much he’s trying to fit in. “I’m sorry Mr. Blaque, I’m sure you’re very good” he says professionally and kindly to an African-American actor (Hal Williams) who is yelling at him for being a racist, and not appreciating his penis size or his credentials. When the boy comes in who starred in his daughter’s porno and Jake has to play-act the interested producer (this is how he’ll track her down), the smug, slouchy kid spits out vile words about Jake’s daughter, fueling his rage to a terrifying degree. He beats the shit out of him. You’re not sure if he killed the kid until Mast later tells him he ruined his face. Within that scene, Mast (who calls him “Pilgrim,” a John Wayne and biblical nod) says he cares about his health and his daughter’s. You actually believe that while also feeling that Mast is a sleazebag loser. This movie drags your emotions and all over the place, like George C. Scott has you by the hair and won’t let go.


It often makes you sad, too. As dark and as violent as Hardcore is, as occasionally, irreverently funny, and as dreamlike those pasteboard walls are, it swirls around in your head with mixed emotions that lead to an effective emptiness. A key scene that always gets to me is when Jake drives through the Los Angeles red light district, with its dens of sin, strip clubs and sex shops flickering past him, eying his face in the rearview mirror like Schrader’s other “God’s lonely man,” Travis Bickle. Women in short-shorts strut the street and Jake seems, not repulsed, but focused towards his destination. Who knows what he’s really thinking. Nitzsche’s score blasts a warped, creepily gorgeous rock composition as Jake pulls up to a store and parks. When he walks into the shop, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Helpless” is playing (I can’t help but wonder if Carrie Snodgress saw this and had a moment, given her dramatic involvement with Nitzsche and Young). Neil Young sensitively, plaintively sings: “Blue, blue windows behind the stars/Yellow moon on the rise/Big birds flying across the sky/Throwing shadows on our eyes/Leave us Helpless, helpless, helpless, helpless …” as Jake wanders through the store. It could seem too on-the-nose (Jake’s not getting any help at this moment), but the song paints a mournfully deep picture of loneliness.

It’s the last thing you’d want to hear perusing a porn shop on a solitary night, whether you were finding your daughter or not, and it speaks not to the moral dilemma of pornography, but to how lonely it can feel. For women and for men.  With all of its questions of faith and men and women and sex and violence and running away and the differing confinements we run from and to, the movie can overcome you with poignant moments of vulnerability and sadness. Of feeling trapped. Watching this “Helpless” scene again (I’ve watched this scene countless times for some curious reason), I thought of Niki, and not Jake’s daughter, in an amusing moment, bitterly complaining to Jake that he at least has the power of faith to comfort him: “So I guess we’re both fucked, huh? But at least you get to go to heaven. I don’t get shit.” I always laugh when she says that, but by the end of the movie it just seems so heartbreaking – for both of them.

From my piece published at the New Beverly

Fool For Love: Reservoir Dogs at 25

Out of sight in the night out of sight in the day
Lookin’ back on the track gonna do it my way
Lookin’ back
Lookin’ for some happiness
But there is only loneliness to find
Jump to the left, turn to the right
Lookin’ upstairs, lookin’ behind

He’s committed? In Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Mr. Orange rifles through a tray of change, finds a gold band among the nickels and dimes and pennies, and slides it on his finger. It’s a wedding band and he’s honoring (or pretend-honoring) the off-screen wife or off-screen ex-wife or off-screen dead wife or the fake wife we never see. It’s a curious moment that, in one aspect, reveals just how vulnerable this guy is. Or, is he solely a liar, a great actor? He’s all of those things, but then many people are. He’s now shoved one of his guns in his boot holster and the other in his coat pocket, knowing those are the two things that serve as the real protection. But the wedding ring is some kind of superstitious gesture of defense – it represents trust, loyalty, commitment. And yet, there it is, floating in a pile of nearly worthless loose change, as valuable as about 67 cents.


As Mr. Orange is readying himself to meet Mr. White and Nice Guy Eddie waiting in the car below, he’s listening to Sandy Rogers’ liltingly lovely, country-sad song “Fool For Love,” a song about a guy who falls one too many times for romance until he (what I take from the song anyway) dies. A hopeless romantic and also a sucker. Before Mr. Orange exits his little apartment, he looks in the mirror and reassures himself: “You’re not gonna get hurt. You’re fuckin’ Baretta. They believe every fuckin’ word ’cause you’re super cool.” This is something the other person wearing a ring should be telling him, but she’s not there. He’s alone. Maybe he wants to be.


It’s a touching, funny and mysterious moment that fits right into the film’s themes – trust and loyalty. Trust is of course important in heist pictures, but whenever I watch Reservoir Dogs, I question the idea of loyalty and trust so much, that I wonder if it even matters in this weird fucking world. On the one human hand, of course it does – unless you exist solely as a lone wolf, insisting on abiding by your own rules, screw sentiment and favors and sticking by someone to the very end, you can’t really get through life without trusting a few people. And you certainly can’t team up and commit a crime without trust. Criminal partnerships require more trust than marriage. But, on the other hand, the rightfully suspicious, trembling hand, trust is often a huge risk, especially when you don’t know someone, really, at all, and if a certain kind of bonding between you and your new friend/crook has come about after a short, starry-eyed courtship. You should be wary. You have to listen to your gut instinct: “Will this person have my back when the shit comes down?” If you think “yes” much too soon, you’re Mr. White, a seasoned criminal who should have known better. And yet, for reasons one can only deduce as a need, an identification, a kind of brotherly love, he falls for young Mr. Orange, the seductive actor/cop. He really likes this guy. And Mr. Orange might like him too, though he’s not above swearing on his mother’s very soul that he’s not a liar, when he really is (but what do those kind of solemn declarations mean anyway? About as much as that wedding ring in the change pile).

Nevertheless, maybe after too many hard, lonely years, Mr. White wants to trust someone. Maybe he’s tired of looking in the mirror and reassuring himself that he’s “super cool.” So taking that leap of faith, that sense of instinct (or ignoring it), it seems no surprise that, of all places, Mr. Orange is shot right in the gut. A transference of Mr. White’s trust, bleeding all over the upholstery, a blood-soaked emblem of how muddy and confused trust and loyalty actually are. Maybe had Orange not been a rat, these two could have made it as associates, friends? I’m not sure about that as I’m not sure about Mr. Orange. Blood is thicker than water they say, but these guys aren’t family. But how do you make a family anyway? As we’ll learn, Mr. Blonde is likely more family and trustworthy than any of these fellas. Mr. Blonde put in the time, he made sacrifices for another; he did more than a lover might commit to. He’s also a psychopath.


There are many reasons why, after 25 years, Tarantino’s quintessence-of-cool, game-changing debut Reservoir Dogs, not only holds up beautifully but also timelessly (there’s nothing dated about this picture) – one of the reasons is … depth. Feeling. Something many of the Tarantino imitators who followed did not possess. They just tried to copy the cool, never the real blood and guts spilling all over the place. Tim Roth’s Mr. Orange is bleeding his guts out, not just for the dark beauty of all that red (and, cinematically speaking, it is startlingly beautiful, soaking into his white shirt and black suit) but for the emotional reaction it provokes in Harvey Keitel’s Mr. White. As he defends his Orange alliance to understandably rattled Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), White protests: “I mean, the man was dyin’ in my arms. What the fuck was I supposed to do? Tell him I’m sorry? I can’t give out that fuckin’ information? It’s against the rules? I don’t trust you enough?” (My inner voice: Yes! You don’t trust him enough!) But, and I don’t know how many of us have held bleeding criminals in our arms after a jewel heist gone to hell, but metaphorically speaking, aren’t most of us Mr. White at one time or another in our lives? If we’ve lived at all and endured some experiences with friends or lovers and have any kind of a heart, yes we are. Jesus. Mr. Pink – the non-tipper – he is right. He’s right if you want to survive: “You’re acting like a first year fucking thief! I’m acting like a professional!”


Why is Mr. White acting like that? All of these shifting, murky feelings, questions of alliance and damaged relationships benefit from the movie’s non-linear structure, where we have to adjust ourselves and pay close attention to each man, and, of course, the crime and the betrayal itself – that of a jewel heist gone horribly awry. The precision and planning is now a total mess, as these things often go down (see numerous heist pictures but, chiefly, Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, an inspiration to Reservoir Dogs, where, by the end, a goddamn cheap suitcase ruins Sterling Hayden’s life). These guys spend most of the movie in a warehouse, flipping out, nervously planning, turning against each other, torturing, bleeding, and by film end, facing each other down in a now-famous Mexican stand-off, loyalties stressed, tested and seriously fucked.


Boss Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) who, with his son, Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn), assemble these six strangers for the job with Joe choosing their names: Mr. White, Mr. Orange (an undercover cop), Mr. Pink, Mr. Brown (Quentin Tarantino), Mr. Blue (Edward Bunker) and Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), whom Joe and Eddie already know. Mr. Blonde (real name, Vic Vega) served time in the Big House and didn’t rat old man Cabot out. That’s a big deal, and it should be. He’s also someone who appears the most cool and self-assured, charming, in the beginning, laughing along at Mr. Brown’s theory of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” an amusing moment of casual conversation and banter that belies a deeper relevance (is Mr. White going to be touched/fucked for the very first time?), and someone everyone trusts. That he turns into an ear-cutting lunatic who surprises the others with his bloodlust during the robbery (the robbery is entirely off-screen, a genius move on Tarantino’s part) is an unsettling surprise – when you first see the movie. The ear slicing is now so famous you almost wish you could watch it again, for the very first time. Like a virgin.


Psycho Mr. Blonde is an important center when testing the character’s bonding and their trust, but also in testing our own alliances and identification. We have sympathy for Mr. White, we love that both noir icon (Born to Kill, The Devil Thumbs a Ride) and real life troublemaker, the numerously arrested Lawrence Tierney and the real hard timer, writer and actor Eddie Bunker show up, and we revel in the varied personalities on display chattering their Tarantino parlance, but Mr. Blonde is the guy all of us want to be. He’s the sexiest: That handsome mug, the old school, understated 50’s leading man charm, the one who brings up Lee Marvin, the amused menace, he even dances. Our attraction to Mr. Blonde (and don’t just say it’s me, it’s not) is one reason the ear-slicing scene is so disturbing to viewers even if we don’t even see Mr. Blonde cut off the tied-up cop’s ear. The camera pans away, but it’s so intense we feel like we’re seeing the coolest cat in the movie commit the most needlessly brutal act. And with laid back Stealers Wheel playing right along, Mr. Blonde cheerfully moving around the room, the hippest guy in the crew is now a monster. For once we feel sorry for the cop (we often don’t in movies like this) while also feeling complicit because, well, we’re enjoying this viciousness a little bit (or a lot). The scene is so brilliantly staged, that when Mr. Blonde goes out to fetch the gasoline (I love how the song continues playing as he re-enters the warehouse, alerting the audience that it is on the radio), we’re thinking … is he going to do it? Is he going to actually set this poor guy on fire? And then Mr. Orange shoots him.

It’s a powerful moment when Mr. Orange kills Mr. Blonde, like the hero exiting the movie too soon, even if Mr. Blonde is not the hero (who is here?). It leaves a necessary empty feeling that surprises me, still, with my consistent reaction. I ask myself, “Am I the only one who doesn’t like that Mr. Blonde is gone?” And, yet, at the same time, I’m not begrudging Mr. Orange for shooting him. I’m also certain I’m actually not the only one who feels this way and so, again, we (I’ll say “we”), we don’t know how to feel about all of these guys. It’s a wonderfully complicated set of sensations, the way the picture is shot (cinematography by Andrzej Sekula) and edited (by Sally Menke), settling you in with these fellas, listening to their hard-boiled slang mixed with pop culture patois and the discussion of regular stuff (“Did you forget your French fries to go with the soda?”) – we find ourselves comfortable with these men. Even Lawrence Tierney, who is easily one of the scariest actors ever to exist on screen, and, if you talk to anyone who had actually met him, off-screen as well. (Come to Los Angeles. You’ll meet about five people in one month). The actors are so superb, their diverse charm and faces and individual éclat so charismatic, that we enjoy hanging out with them even when they’re terrifying. And we like all of these men. We certainly love watching them.


The joy of watching them is immediate, but most striking when taking in the famous credit sequence tuned to the George Baker Selection’s “Little Green Bag.” Announced by Steven Wright’s stoner-intoning, deadpan D.J. (K-Billy’s “Super Sounds of the 70’s” weekend”), I still get a rush of strange happiness looking at these men walking in slow motion in their black suits and sunglasses (with Penn and Tierney in regular clothes, an aesthetically pleasing choice, setting them apart). Tarantino (one of the best cinematic juke-boxes in movies) could have been on the nose and chosen songs that might “match” these black-suited hoods (however anyone is matched) but the ‘70s sounds moving along with these men in black suits and skinny ties (recalling Hong Kong cinema and the French New Wave) was/is the simultaneously perfect and unexpected touch. Part of the music’s power is proving that nearly everyone, even psychopaths, have a fondness for “Stuck in the Middle with You” when it pops up on the radio, making this alternate universe of criminals living right down on earth with us. It both glamorizes and grounds them.


And that Tarantino makes a point to create a D.J. choosing these songs, rather than simply scoring the movie with pop tunes, gives these guys the lucky weekend of the perfect playlist, like they just stumbled into their own exceptional soundtrack. And this furthers the picture’s timelessness and postmodernism (or, as some have called it, “post-post modernism”), where nostalgia is not necessarily nostalgia. History is embedded in a timeless world, a world that’s a veritable mix tape of past eras, styles, genres, stories and classic tracks – tracks we actually like, not just for the sake of wistfulness (though that’s there too). It might take some characters back to an earlier time (as when “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” is discussed), but like classic literature or movies, enough time has passed that these songs are almost part of our DNA. And certainly the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack, at 25 years now, is for fans, woven into our own life. Some of us even might get emotional about it. 6a00d83451cb7469e201b7c8fdcaa1970b-800wi

Which brings me back to the strikingly sensitive, emotional Mr. White, holding onto Mr. Orange with such moving devotion. What are the constants in life? Our favorite books, songs and movies? Yes. They rarely let us down. But people? That’s a whole other messy, bloody area as we see with that instinct (or lack of) that Mr. White had for Mr. Orange. He’s shattered by the end.  Did he even listen to his gut? Or did he just read it wrong? Mr. White says to the grievously wounded Mr. Orange: “The gut is the most painful area a guy can get shot in. But it takes a long time to die from it.” But he’s also, touchingly and tragically, talking about himself. As Mr. Pink mocks, “I’m sure it was a beautiful scene.” It was. And 25 years later it still is.

From my piece for the New Beverly.

Blonde Venus, Blonde Genius


“I wish I was someone else. Then I could stay with you here, forever.”

Radiation poisoning. That’s what Blonde Venus’s Herbert Marshall catches while submerged in work, hunched over beakers and microscopes and boiling cauldrons of early 1930s chemicals, toiling to manage a respectable middle class to poor life six years after he contracted that other near-incurable illness: love. Since marriage and scientific occupation, he’s grown increasingly toxic, so much that he’s going to die. Those in his life must make sacrifices to ensure his survival, specifically his radiant, loving wife who will also toil and suffer and risk infection. But she will be punished. He will be cured, medically speaking. Mentally, he’s a disaster.


Radiation poisoning isn’t discussed in detail in Josef von Sternberg’s picture, just that Marshall knows he has it and that treatment is lengthy and expensive; requiring an overseas trip and time away from his family. But when researching the effects, I learned that if left untreated, extreme doses are fatal, leading to neurovascular symptoms in the brain. One such symptom is an altered level of consciousness with disturbances sounding almost pleasant – levels of arousal are rendered abnormal and sufferers often find themselves in a stuporous state; the afflicted can fall into a coma. I also learned that extreme levels of beta particles cause higher levels of radiation. Extreme levels of beta particles? Oh, no, men don’t want that. Beta. That could lead to … cuckolding. Nothing is presented so literally in the picture, beta particles and obtundation and ionizing and such, but a patriarchal pollutant spreads all over this fever dream, shoving its heroine (and that heroine, an iridescent Marlene Dietrich) towards punishment, heartbreak and squalor. Radiation poisoning is one thing, but cheating is quite another, no matter if it saves Herbert Marshall’s life. Society agrees. And, so, in Dietrich’s Blonde Venus world, most men now seem radioactive. She must run and hide; go underground, go undercover so it doesn’t catch up with her.


Blonde Venus was the fifth picture out of the seven Dietrich made with her artistic partner, the besotted/bullying genius von Sternberg and it’s largely considered inferior to others (some masterpieces) like The Blue Angel, Morocco, Dishonored, Shanghai Express, The Scarlett Empress and The Devil is a Woman. I’ve read descriptions like “dreary,” “maudlin,” “melodramatic,” “slack,” and while I understand some issues (chiefly, that the original script was altered three times to satisfy the censoring MPPDA – in previous drafts Dietrich embraced her affair and prostitution, in another she loved both her husband and her lover), I revere the picture, regardless. But even Sternberg didn’t like it, not surprising given the finger-wagging headache attached to the production (the film was co-written by Jules Furthman and S. K. Lauren). In fact, he claims he barely remembered the “opus” though, considering how reportedly personal the film’s subject matter is (even if modified), I don’t believe him for one second. Perhaps he wanted to forget it. Nevertheless, this is how he described the dreamy picture in his autobiography, “Fun In A Chinese Laundry”:


“I became more and more partial to fancy as I proceeded to make a fifth film with my fair lady in another vehicle deemed unworthy of her superb talents. One writer stated it thus: ‘It is as if the Delphic Oracle had stepped down from her pedestal to give her opinion of the weather.’ This film was Blonde Venus, also based on a story of mine written swiftly to provide something other than the sob stories that were being submitted. There is little to be said of this film, except that I tried to leave the company before making it. But Miss Dietrich also left, refusing to work with anyone else, but I was forced to return, as we were both under contract. I remember this opus very vaguely, but recalled some of it years later while driving through France with a charming companion, who, in a moment of confidence, after we had stopped in Rouen for goose and Beaujolais, leaned toward me to say, ‘You know, it took me five years to understand what you said to me when I worked in your film.’ This was Cary Grant, whom I had rescued from the status as one of Mae West’s foils to launch him on his stellar career. After all, five years is not too long a time to understand what someone else is trying to impart.”

Five years is about the same length of time Helen Faraday (Dietrich) has been married to physicist Edward ‘Ned’ (Marshall), whom she met in a most pre-code scintillating way – skinny-dipping. The picture opens in Germany with the hallucinatory image (shot by the brilliant Bert Glennon) of Dietrich swimming in the raw with a bevy of water beauties while science-minded Ned and students tramp through nature, stumbling across this lovely tableau, not so science-minded anymore. Ned and company peep, Helen tells them to go away, he asks her out, and then he soon learns she’s a cabaret singer. Naturally, he’s smitten. She’s Marlene Dietrich. But things change over those years, a fact underscored in an almost humorous transition shot from past lovely legs swaying in a pond, to hausfrau Helen bathing her beloved child, Johnny (Dickie Moore), splashing in the bathtub. She’s now a regular mom (as regular as she could ever look), tending to domestic child rearing while her husband is informing a doctor about his dreaded overdose of radium. She married for love, clearly. Ned’s not a wealthy man and he can’t afford his $1,500 cure, necessitating his wife return to the stage to earn money for him. He’s torn-up about it and hates seeing his strong, stunning wife out there working. He also feels diminished as a man. At this point you feel sorry for Ned (as elegantly-voiced as Herbert Marshall is, he seems rather dull next to his luminous wife) but you still want to reach into the movie and shake him – she loves you for heaven’s sake!And her powerful allure is why he fell in love with her in the first place. But that Helen seems forever ago and once made his, Helen must (in many a man’s eyes), be tamed. And this is 1932. Married women of physicists generally did not return to cabaret singing.


She’s given the once over with an agent and a club owner: “Let me see your legs.” She pulls up her skirt and asks, “Is that enough?” His answer: “For the time being.” The burly owner (Robert Emmett O’Connor) anoints her as Blonde Venus. But this Venus does not emerge from the half shell. Not to be trite or expected or surpassed in surrealistic stylishness, Marlene Venus emerges from a… gorilla costume. It’s the movie’s most gorgeously strange moment of highly suggestive erotic exoticism – Marlene removing her gorilla head, her blonde-haloed face glowing (perfectly) in von Sternberg’s baroque frames (and her knowledge of lighting as well), she then grabs a golden Afro wig, places it on her head and sings “Hot Voodoo.” Describing this moment requires two words you don’t often see together often enough but should: blonde genius.


I’d follow a cave man right into his cave.
That beat gives me a wicked sensation
My conscious wants to take a vacation!
Got voodoo, head to toes,
Hot voodoo, burn my clothes…

I want to start dancing, just wearing a smile.
Hot voodoo, I’m aflame,
I’m really not to blame,
That African tempo is meaner than mean.
Hot voodoo make me brave!

I want to misbehave
I’m beginning to feel like an African queen
Those drums bring up the heaven inside me
I need some great big angel to guide me

Hot voodoo, makes me wild
Oh, fireman, save this child
I going to blazes
I want to be bad!

Does she want to be bad? The movie does not think she is bad, but that she is human. And so when the absurdly handsome, wealthy playboy Nick Townsend (Cary Grant… Cary Grant, for emphasis), falls for her and writes her a check for $300, she takes it. That is enough money for Ned to leave for treatment, but while he’s out of the country, successfully sucking the radium out of his body (however they do it), she moves in with Nick (with a happy Johnny in tow). She becomes a kept woman able to pay for her husband’s medical expenses while genuinely enjoying herself with a benefactor who does not look like Charles Coburn – he looks like Cary Grant. We forgive her. And she might be in love with him. He’s in love with her, but since her husband’s returning, she must do the right thing and stay with Ned. Nick leaves the country to properly forget about her. A lot happens to her after he leaves. Of course he won’t forget about her.


Here’s the first start of her journey into blonde-dishonor: Ned comes home before Helen is back, cured, worried, wondering where his wife is. She’s honest and admits the affair. She’s honest. He doesn’t take it well and, at this point, Ned becomes a dark figure of rage. He’s even constantly shot with a shadow over his face, the brim of his hat low, his visage so menacing that his cuckolded anger has turned to a physical manifestation of black bile. (Even Steve McQueen took it better after Ali MacGraw slept with Ben Johnson to help him out, her husband, in Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway – he smacked her a few times but he stayed with her) He brands her a whore and threatens to take Johnny from her. So she runs away with Johnny. And in a series of lovely to sad sequences, Helen and Johnny survive on the lam, Helen eventually resorting to tricks. In one especially potent scene, a sleazy, cigar-chomping restaurant owner works out a deal with Helen who has no money to pay for dinner (she offers to do dishes). He says, lasciviously: “You gonna wash my dishes? Go back and see the cook.” We know what happens next.


Time and emotional exhaustion run out for Helen when a detective (Sidney Toler) catches up with her and Johnny, living in an artfully created dump with chickens roaming around (a shot of Marlene with a pigeon on her shoulder is so beautiful you almost can’t believe how beautiful it is). She can’t stand Johnny to live this life anymore and agrees to return him to Ned, which is heartbreaking in its sensibility. Why must life be like this? Why must her husband torture her so? In an ardently acted scene, Helen sits silent, head down as Ned picks up Johnny. We think for a moment, perhaps Ned will be kind to Helen. No. He gives her another piece of his mind, and pays her back the $1,500. He considers it filthy. Helen later gets drunk, stumbling around in degradation, and hands that $1,500 to a broken down suicidal woman in a flophouse. It’s the act of a generous woman and the act of a masochistic woman. Helen knows that old woman can’t make as much on her back, but Helen can. And will. And as she does, she scratches her way back up, becoming the toast of Paris. Through gritty determination and a hardening of her heart, she’s a sensation, singing in white tux and top hat, the transformation complete. She is in control of her life, finally. Dressed androgynously, she saunters around her dressing room in charge. No man will rule her life again. And love? Never. She’s not catching that illness again. Not even for her son.


Well, no not so fast. She can’t cure her love for her son. There’s no radiation-like treatment that can ever scrub out the pain in one’s heart – forget her toxic husband. It’s her son. She agrees to marry millionaire Nick who takes her back to New York to see Johnny one more time. A surly Ned finally allows her visit after Nick insults his pride with money. But that’s why – he shamed him. And then … that ending. In which once radioactive, beta-afflicted Ned softens to the bonding of his wife and son. Is this where the movie becomes silly? That she gives it all up to live happily ever after with a man who has been a tyrant ever since her one indiscretion? I don’t think so. But this is what many don’t buy, as if one needs to “buy” such complex emotions. But here are the questions: Why would she stay with Ned? Why should we be happy she stays with Ned when she has Cary Grant? Why does Ned change his mind? My answer in the form of a question: Has anyone been in a complicated, guilt-ridden, toxic relationship?  Because not only do I find the ending touching (for the love of her son, and Dickie Moore is fantastic, never cloying or cutesy or affected), I find it sad and not at all unrealistic (whatever realism means). Who knows if Ned and Helen will be happy? Ned has taken everyone down with his sickness, extreme beta to extreme alpha – he’s toxic beyond radiation, but he, too, is human. Perhaps there is hope for him? Perhaps not. The future could be grim.


To me, the picture works poetically, an allegory, an exquisite, concentrated reverie of suffering womanhood – what one must endure to remain free and sexual, artistic and loving, and a loving mother. But also a tough woman with no child, a woman who dons a top hat and playfully caresses chorines. Dietrich and von Sternberg’s Helen represents all types of woman in one woman – women do live with such various sides to themselves. And society doesn’t want this full woman (and yet, so many truly do, they’re just to afraid to accept her). This is a woman who, at one point said, “I wish I could be someone else.” And then she became, not someone else, but different versions of female representation: Vixen, wife, mother, whore, self-destructor, self-reliant. She’s also an artist, which her husband will likely never understand (Sternberg did). But perhaps, with all of this history, this full-fledged woman with a profound past, with talent and maternal love, it will take Ned and Helen another five to six years of marriage to sort through this. And either stay or go. As Sternberg said: “Five years is not too long a time to understand what someone else is trying to impart.”

Originally published at the New Beverly

Kill Or Be Killed # 9: Mikey and Nicky


Heads up -- issue #9 of Ed Brubaker's Kill Or Be Killed is coming out May 31. In this one, I dig into a favorite, Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky (with art by Jacob Phillips).

One graph from my piece:

As the evening wears on and these two talk, fight, hit each other and smack a troubled, sensitive woman, the friends reveal more and more about themselves and your emotions shift all over the place. Whatever alliances you had, whatever charm you’ve felt from these two guys, all that has been dragged around and sullied, dirtied up like that door in Nicky’s dumpy motel room. And May shoots it that way, never allowing a glamorous moment to enter the frame. You can practically smell the bars they’re drinking in. And yet, you don’t want to get out of this movie, you don’t want to unlock the door and make a run for it. You like being stuck with these two small-timers, you’re fascinated and drawn to hem, and you wonder where this is all gonna end … who is going to make it through the night?

Pre-order soon here