Tuesday, May 15, 2007

"Savage Pastimes" (2005)

Revealed wisdom is that violent entertainment, whether via TV, movies, comics, video games or books, is bad for children. In fact, most people assume that too much of it will turn kids into felons at the drop of a Stetson with a bullet hole in it.

Not so, says literature professor Harold Schechter, who spends his afternoons teaching 19th century American lit at Queens College in New York and his mornings writing crime novels starring Edgar Allan Poe, or drop dead readable mass market true crime books on the lives and careers of serial killers.

His message in "Savage Pastimes: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment" is, not only is contemporary pop culture not more violent than it used to be, it’s actually less violent—and even if it were just as violent, that would be a good thing. Following Gerard Jones’ 2002 book "Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence, "Schechter makes a strong case in favor of the idea that humans are just too near, in evolutionary terms, dropping down from the tree or crawling out of the swamp to be completely civilized. We need the outlet of violent entertainment to keep from being violent in fact.

“One of the main functions of the popular arts,” he writes, “is precisely to supply us with fantasies of violence, to allow us to vent—safely, in a controlled, socially acceptable, vicarious way—those ‘undying primal impulses which, however outmoded by civilization, need somehow to be expressed’ (as Leslie Fiedler puts it).”

Most of the book is spent conveying anecdotal evidence (not too convincing) and in relating the history of violent entertainment through the ages (very eye-opening.) There was a time, he tells us, that even the church used the latest special effects technology to make medieval mystery plays gruesomely spectacular.

“No celebration of Christian martyrdom would be complete without at least one fiery immolation—a requirement satisfied in The Acts of the Apostles by the burning of St. Barnabas. For added verisimilitude, the stand-in dummy was stuffed with animal entrails. As the figure blazed, the offal spilled onto the stage. By this clever means ‘the stench of roasting flesh complement[ed] the sight of the body being consumed by the flame.”

This is stuff even Mel Gibson didn’t think of.

None of Schechter’s ideas are exactly new. He quotes Edmund Burke’s 1757 tract on the Sublime and Beautiful to the effect that the citizens of his day would rather watch a real execution than an imitation one performed by the best actors.

The good thing, Schechter believes, is that we have become civilized enough to happily settle for the imitation. This is why he says that modern pop culture violence is considerably less than it used to be. We may still execute criminals, but at least we don’t do it in public.

Quoting critic George Stade, Schechter writes that “People are fascinated by representations of murder because, in the first place, they want to kill someone and, in the second, they won’t. Surely one function of narrative is to allow in the imagination what we forbid in the flesh.”

Schechter has little use for the professionally outraged, those letters to the editor writers who see damaged young psyches behind every thumb and forefinger bent to form an imaginary gun.

“The problem with moral crusaders,” he writes, “is an almost willful blindness to the fundamental realities of human behavior, accompanied by a sweeping ignorance of cultural history that prevents them from seeing supposedly unique manifestations of modern depravity for what they really are—i.e., simply the latest versions of perennial phenomena.

“The pattern is always the same. A new medium of mass entertainment comes along that is aimed at—or embraced primarily by—kids and the working class. Very quickly, high-minded reformers begin to denounce it as a sign of social decay, a corrupter of the young, a threat to the very existence of civilization as we know it.”

Schechter doesn’t follow through on the key concept here—that it is not just the children that “need to be protected,” but the less-smart-than-we members of the working class that also need the guidance of people who demonize pop culture, schools and libraries, and then heroically volunteer to step in and solve the problem only they saw in the first place.

Certainly many moral reformers are concerned with morals—but many others see these “problems” as a means of gaining political control.

"Savage Pastimes" is clumsily edited, with names misspelled and words repeated in sentences. If Schechter wanted the book to be used in classrooms, he should have done a little more scientific research and relied on anecdotes, but as an introduction to the, for some, heretical notion that violent entertainment is as inevitable as violence itself—and a lot less destructive—this is a good place to start.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

"West of Zanzibar" (1928)

Lurid. Now there’s a word you don’t see very often.

And that’s a shame because it calls to mind some images and feelings that, if you didn’t use the word, would require complete sentences to convey. Plus, how can you write about the Tod Browning/Lon Chaney film collaborations without using the term “lurid melodrama”? Maybe you can do it, but you’ll be sweating blood before you’re through.

“West of Zanzibar” and “The Unknown” are the most lurid of the team’s productions, and among the most lurid mainstream Hollywood movies of all time. In the former, Chaney stars as Phroso (a name re-used by Browning in “Freaks”), a vaudeville magician in a baggy clown costume. As we watch Phroso perform what will become his signature trick—making a woman disappear from a coffin-shaped box standing upright on the stage—Chaney emphasizes a comic way of moving. He shuffles along, then stops to look back over his shoulder at us in the audience.

Browning, an old carnie veteran himself, cuts to the rear of the coffin so we can see how the trick is done, with a revolving back panel that allows Anna, Phroso’s wife (Jacqueline Gadsden—her name has also been given as Jacqueline Hart and Jacqueline Daly; such is fame in the movies) to exit the box while a skeleton swings around as a substitution.

Backstage after the performance Anna reveals to the magician that she is leaving him to run away with Crane, a dealer in ivory (Lionel Barrymore). Phroso pleads his case but gets into a shoving match with Crane, who causes the performer to lose his balance and fall from the second story onto a table below.

Over a year passes and we rejoin Phroso. As a result of the fall, he has lost the use of his legs and now gets around by scooting himself along on a board with wheels under it. He receives a message that Anna has returned with a baby and that he can find them at a church. He rolls up to the altar where Anna lies dead. The baby girl sits next to her.

From here we jump forward eighteen years. Phroso, now known as “Dead-Legs,” has moved to equatorial Africa where he lives with Doc, an alcoholic physician (Warner Baxter) and two factotums, Tiny (Roscoe Ward) and Babe (Kalla Pasha).

Phroso has changed, and not for the better. His head has been shaved and he dons stubble on his face and pate. He has become hardened and cruel, berating his companions—especially Doc—and treating the natives, who regard him with some awe because of his reliance on stage magic, like slaves. It must be said that Browning’s depiction of native Africans is far from sympathetic. They are cowardly, childlike, and brutal, and are only in the film to provide an unreasoning danger always ready to break out.

Anna’s baby, Maizie, is not part of this uber-dysfunctional family. Phroso, despising her for her entire life as the offspring of his unfaithful wife and Crane, has shipped her off to be raised in a brothel/dive in Zanzibar. As you can see, I didn’t emphasize the word “lurid” for nothing.

But now Maizie has grown into a surprisingly innocent young woman (the beautiful but unfortunate Mary Nolan), and Phroso has sent Tiny to retrieve her with the promise that she can finally meet her father. Tiny, pretending to be a missionary, brings her back to Phroso’s camp, where the crippled man treats her like dirt. He gives her clothing to the native women, he makes her eat off the floor, he humiliates her however he can and gets her addicted to alcohol. Tiny and Babe act as if this bizarre behavior is perfectly normal, but Doc, smitten with her beauty and decency, wants to rescue her.

Just as we come to assume that Maizie’s fate is to be reduced to sub-human status by Dead-Legs’ sadism, we, along with the girl, witness a native ceremony and learn that whenever an important male in the village dies, he is cremated along with his wife or daughter. Then we learn that Crane is in the area trading for ivory, and all becomes clear.

Dead-Legs has been hijacking Crane’s goods and deliberately letting him know how he can be found. Crane shows up to deliver a warning to desist. The relative hierarchy of whiles over blacks is made clear as Crane is carried over a mud puddle by his native workers so he can avoid staining his white trousers.

When he meets Dead-Legs and realizes who he is, Crane slaps his hands together and lets out a whoop of joy. As cruel as the man in the wheelchair, he takes pleasure in his old rival’s devolution into a crawling, sweat-stained creature of the jungle. When Dead-Legs introduces him to Maizie, the old magician rejoices in his brutal treatment of the young woman. Crane himself thinks Phroso is keeping the girl as his mistress and gets a kick from what he must see as a sado-masochistic ménage.

To continue discussing the film’s plot at this point would reveal some of its secrets. It’s a relatively short picture and the final reel speeds by. Perhaps the movie’s brevity is the result of material censored from the final cut. Scenes of Phroso’s dehumanization were excised—him begging for money and being beaten, as well as the debasement of being forced to work as a carnival geek (his employment as a human duck was re-used by Browning in “Freaks”). Shocking as these scenes would have been in 1928, their inclusion would have gone a long way toward explaining the man that Phroso becomes. Without them, the extremity of his hatred of Maizie seems bizarre, but it is what makes the film more than just a sordid revenge tale.

“West of Zanzibar” exists beyond reason. Its ferocity is akin to that of the most hideous Jacobean revenge tragedies, crossing the border at times that separates horror from black humor. The screen practically drips with sweat, and madness seems to be the norm.

Chaney’s performance is remarkable, and not just on the physical level. Dead-Legs is a masterpiece of evil and insanity. Every smile is forced; every gesture of kindliness is a calculation. And it isn’t a performance that is grounded in Chaney’s grease paint and false beards. It springs from Phroso’s psychological make-up.

Chaney and Browning would approach this level of perversion only one other time, in the gob-smacking “The Unknown.” But “West of Zanzibar” may be a more subversive film.

You can’t watch “The Unknown” and not be aware of the Chaney character’s profoundly abnormal psychology. You can watch “West of Zanzibar” and think that you’re reacting only out of pity to Maizie’s plight, or that the acting is keeping you riveted. If there’s anything else at work in the back of your mind, you don’t want to know about it.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (1936)

The puzzlement of Tod Slaughter’s films, as even his most enthusiastic fans have to admit, is this: are his peculiar performances enough to let us recommend his movies when “by any objective standard they are cheaply-produced rubbish.” (britishpictures.com) If you want to try one, “Sweeney Todd” should be it.

The long journey of “Sweeney Todd” from blood and thunder stage melodrama to Broadway musical began in an urban legend. One of Sweeney’s stops along the way was a “quota quickie,” a movie made in England on the cheap with at least 75% of the paid cast and crew being English. These came about because of the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act, which was enacted to help the British film industry compete with American movies at home.

Slaughter was born in 1885 so by the time he made “Sweeney Todd,” just his third picture, in 1936, he was already in his 50s. He’d spent his early years on the provincial stage, touring England in the kind of be-whiskered melodramas much beloved by the Victorians and kept alive by shamelessly barnstorming theater companies.

George King, a producer and later director of quota quickies, discovered Slaughter and decided that he would be as successful in films as he was on stage if he performed in the same kind of story, and so cast his new aging star in “Murder in the Red Barn.” It clicked with less demanding audiences and Slaughter began his cinematic reign of terror.

In “Sweeney Todd,” Slaughter plays the title roll of a demented barber in Victorian London who uses a tricked-out barber’s chair to “polish off” his wealthier customers. A gentleman sits in the chair, Todd pulls a lever, and the chair and platform on which it rests swivel backward dropping the victim through a hole in the floor and into the cellar. If the fall doesn’t kill him, Todd soon will.

The barber shop shares its cellar with the shop next to it, Mrs. Lovatt’s bakery of meat pies. The movie never explicitly points out that Mrs. Lovatt (a deliciously pinched-face Stella Rho) cuts up the bodies of Todd’s customers and bakes them into her pies, but several hints are dropped. In one scene, a supporting character is eating one of the pies as he ponders on why the corpses of the murdered men are never seen again. Either cannibalism was a taboo that could never have gotten past the censor or it was assumed that the British public already knew what the Todd/Lovatt connection was.

As the film opens, a solid British sailor named Mark Ingerstreet (Bruce Seton) is being greeted on his return from the sea by Johanna, his one true love (Eve Lister). Unfortunately, Mark sails for Johanna’s father, one of those Victorian paters who would never consider a mere employee to be an acceptable suitor for his daughter’s hand (D.J. Williams).

We see Todd standing in the shadows, watching for a likely customer he can murder and rob. “I love my work,” he cackles, slapping his hands together and wringing them. “Money!” he hisses with all the subtlety of a jackhammer when he sees a wealthy nabob come ashore. Todd invites the man into his shop for a close shave and before dropping him through the hole in the floor, he sends his young apprentice Tobias (Johnny Singer) next door for a pie.

As fate, and melodrama, would have it, Todd knows Johanna’s father and wants to invest in his next voyage. Of course, he also has his beady eyes on Johanna and determines to win her either through wooing or through skullduggery, preferably the latter. (I am reminded of the fella in “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man” who asks Larson E. Whipsnade (W.C. Fields) if he wants to earn an honest dollar. “Does it have to be honest?” Whipsnade replies.)

Weeks pass and Mark sets out on the very voyage in which Todd has invested. The film now offers a diversionary segment in which the captain of the ship is killed by rampaging natives and Mark assumes command. When he returns to London he has with him a sack of pearls. Todd sees him disembark, lures him to the shop and attempts to kill him. This time, the fall doesn’t “polish him off” and, after Mrs. Lovatt spies Todd stealing the pearls so he won’t have to divvy up with her, she helps Mark to escape.

Mark then decides to disguise himself as an old country farmer and goes back to Sweeney’s shop. He’s dropped into the cellar again and with the assistance of another sailor he figures out exactly how Todd performs his evil deeds.

Now we get to the wild-as-a-March-hare conclusion. Johanna discovers what Mark is up to so she disguises herself as a young boy and goes to Todd’s in case she needs to rescue Mark. Todd figures out who she is, knocks her out, and locks her in the closet. He has already killed Mrs. Lovatt, offstage, and in order to cover up his crimes, he sets fire to the shop.

Back rushes Mark and smashes his way into the building to look for Johanna. As he pulls her from the closet, Todd returns to kill him. Todd ends up in the blazing cellar, Johanna ends up in Mark’s arms, and the ill-gotten gains end up spilled in an alley.

It’s been said that if the Victorians could have made movies, the product would have looked like Tod Slaughter’s pictures. Obviously, there isn’t much in the plot to attract anyone born after 1902 and the production values (except for the costumes) are laughably low. The acting from the supporting players is actually a notch above what you find in poverty row American films of the era—but then there’s Slaughter.

He’s so hammy his performances should have been condemned in Leviticus. His smile is so wide you know his characters have to be faking their bonhomie, and the smile is never reflected in his eyes, which are unmoving and dead. He does a great deal of acting with his hands, double gesturing, wringing, and rubbing palms together. He often speaks in a throaty, raspy whisper that makes him sound like the host of a radio horror series. He doesn’t seem to have figured out that you don’t have to play everything so broadly in front of a camera.

But there’s no denying that the guy is a one-man time machine. Watching him transports you to another era. In fact, you may find yourself hissing the television.

I suppose, though, that the real pleasure comes from watching a performer who seems to genuinely love what he’s doing. I know a critic shouldn’t try to slide by with saying, “I can’t explain it any better than that,” but hell, I can’t explain it any better than that.

Let me go out quoting britishpictures.com once again. “A new generation of fans have stumbled onto his work [seeing it on late night British TV] and asked the question ‘What the bloody hell was that!’"

What indeed.

So is it a good movie? Oh hell no. As a work of cinema, it's abysmal. Okay do I recommend it? I just can't. I want to, but I can't. But if you've read this far, you know I recommend Tod Slaughter. Forget what I say and read what I mean. Seek him out.