1940's Archives - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

A Letter to Three Wives (1949)

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Deborah, Rita, and Lora Mae stand at strained points with their husbands.  A letter from a mutual acquaintance, Addie Ross, arrives and informs the women she's taking one of their husbands and running off.  This prompts suspicion and reflection, as all three remember the hard times with difficult to love men.  Joseph L. Mankiewicz directs A Letter to Three Wives, with the screenplay written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Vera Caspary, and stars Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, Ann Sothern.

A Letter to Three Wives has a mean streak as subtle as it is all-encompassing.  It starts playfully enough, with a lovely voiceover telling the audience what we're about to watch "might be fictitious" and any character resemblance "might be purely coincidental."  Barely a minute later, after director Joseph L. Mankiewicz's camera takes a jaunty float through town and comes to rest in front of a gorgeous home, the same woman teasing about the veracity of this tale says the home belongs to Brad Bishop (Jeffrey Lynn) - the man who gave her a first black eye and a first kiss.  The playful pretense continued, but I couldn't join in knowing what Brad was capable of, and if he's so genial the rest of the husbands deserved the same suspicion.

The tension I felt in this introduction sustained my interest and racked my nerves throughout the rest of A Letter to Three Wives.  I know that Brad's capable of violence, and with that knowledge I couldn't help but cast a suspicious eye on the rest of the men.  This suspicion grew uncomfortably real in George Phipps' introduction - first because George is played by Kirk Douglas, a man so comfortable dominating the screen it feels as though everyone else has to shirk back by default.  Second because he's trapped visually in a frame made from the car window, and as Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain) speaks with him his energy grows to genial if somewhat menacing trapped in that space.


Mid-week Anger: Puce Moment (1949)

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The Kenneth Anger films discussed as part of this project are available for purchase in a collection from Fantoma.

A dark I can't get behindImitation can be a form of flattery or eerily close to the point of origin and cause discomfort in the audience.  In recent years we developed a term for special effects which approach this level of discomfort as the uncanny valley.  But savvy cinematic artists have used different film stocks, shutter speeds, lighting, and acting styles to create this disconnect for as long as cinema has been around.  Much like how motion smoothing on modern TVs creates more information than our brains can comfortably process between frames, early cameras presented audiences with their own version of "cinematic reality" which changed as the years went on.

This is all to say that I'm aware of the craft behind Kenneth Anger's Puce Moment but this realization does not stave my unease watching it.  Cameras had become capable of smoother motion capture at higher resolutions but Anger was more interested in filming a version of "cinematic reality" which hadn't been in theaters for several decades.  I didn't need to listen to Anger's commentary track to find out  he designed Puce Moment as an ode to the silent era as it's widespread in Puce Moment's mise en scène.


Mid-week Anger: Introduction and Fireworks (1947)

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The Kenneth Anger films discussed as part of this project are available for purchase in a collection from Fantoma.

The man in the fleshFirst, a note of appreciation for Matt Zoller Seitz, who suggested I take a look at the films of Kenneth Anger when I was in the middle of my Maya Deren project.  His Twitter and other online writing is a must-follow for anyone interested in television and film criticism, is the writer of two books on Wes Anderson and a forthcoming compendium of his Mad Men reviews, and has the gentlest eyes in the business.

Second, I feel surprisingly overwhelmed taking even a high-level look at Anger's career, let alone going through his films one at a time.  My previous experimental filmmaker projects with Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage felt self-contained in comparison because their careers and lives have come to peaceful ends.  Anger, at 88 years of age, commands an impressive body of work outside cinema as a writer of books like Hollywood Babylon and is still producing new material.

Now that I've taken in Fireworks, one of his earliest surviving films, I understand more why I feel so daunted.  There's a vitality in his body that defies his age and if his films continue to challenge me in the same way Fireworks did then I may be in for an exhausting few months.

On to the project.


Mid-week Maya: Meditation on Violence (1948)

Unfortunately, today's Maya Deren is not easily available in its full-length on the internet.  Those interested should check a local library for potential listings of a collection.

Meditation on Violence (1948)Something I've danced around in previous installments is just how radical Maya Deren's films are.  One school of feminist film-making says that there is no way to really make a feminist film so long as the lens is still creating a world through the visual language of men.  Now a few years after World War II, how many film-makers in America were producing experimental silent film with non-Caucasian stars?

Not many, and today's film, Meditation on Violence, shows why Deren is in a league all to herself.  By 1948 the visual language for musicals was well entrenched in the collective American visual consciousness.  But film as music, or dance as Deren has approached it before, was still lacking.  There is no lack of poetry in the cinema of the early 20th century, but this kind of experimentation where one form of medium may be able to substitute for the experience of another is unheard of.  While the kings of early cinema cemented a common visual language, Deren was pulling it apart.

Nothing shows this better than the first appearance of Chao Li Chi, whose movements Deren examines over the next handful of minutes.  He has the makeup of a silent movie star, yet his features are undeniably his own, and moves with strength and grace throughout the indoor then outdoor arenas of Meditation on Violence.  With just a bit of makeup, Deren managed to upend the idea of a silent film star.  Of course China had a robust film industry as well, but the sort of "Americanized" make up on Li Chi shows the beautiful variety we could have had in our movies.  Even before we get far into his routine we're presented with a systemic idea of violence, not a physical one, in the form of forcing American stars to look a certain way.


Mid-week Maya: The Private Life of a Cat (1947)

The films of Maya Deren are widely available online and I will post links when possible.  Here is a link for The Private Life of a Cat.

The Private Life of a Cat (1947)Barely thirty seconds into the opening credits for The Private Life of a Cat will reveal just why I had a lackluster reception to the film.  The Private Life of a Cat was one of Maya Deren's collaborative films, and whatever the extent of her involvement was it apparently was not enough to attach her name to the credits.  You'll see her partner, and then-husband, Alexander Hammid in the credits but not Deren.

This is makes sense, because there's little to nothing in The Private Life of a Cat which bears the creative stamp Deren has come to develop with her films.  In her previous efforts Deren has shown a willingness to blend the movement of the camera with her performers and the background to attain a sort of transcendence in harmony between the three.  I've been impressed by the results so far, and wonder what The Private Life of a Cat would look like with her brand of subjectivity.