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The Women (1939)

The Women

Of course many of the characters are trivial, ridiculous ladies. The people who made the movie thought so too, that’s why they showed us the characters. They knew and deep in our hearts we know that there were (and are even today!) women whose interests do not extend much beyond clothes and gossip. Why should we hide from the fact? Of course the monkeys dressed up in miniature copies of high-fashion designs are silly – but no sillier than the women for whom this sort of status symbol is important

Taking this film on its own merits, without resorting to specious comparisons with some ideal of indescribable loftiness, it’s pretty darn good. After all, it’s a comedy, and comedy is exaggeration. And props, as they say, to screenwriter Anita Loos. Credit must be given to any woman who survives in a male-dominated field for umpteen years. She worked with D. W. Griffith! And of course Loos didn’t start writing this one from scratch, but adapted it from a play by Clare Booth Luce.

It was really a clever decision, to have not one single male in the whole picture. Yet, how to include the decisive argument between Mary and Stephen – a dialogue which includes every line ever spoken between husbands and wives in similar situations since the beginning of time – while preserving the artistic decision of the all-female cast? I can just imagine the author and/or screenwriters brainstorming this problem… Aha! Play the scene with the two women domestics, one reporting the argument and the other providing appropriate cynical comments – what a solution!

The dialogue between Mary and her mother is right on, and it can’t be denied that even in this age of openness and therapy for all, a person whose loved one strays is still faced with the same choices – confrontation or feigned ignorance – and making the choice still needs to be thought over carefully.

Technical comment: After a bad-news phone call from her husband, Mary reflectively fondles the bottle of Summer Rain perfume – cut to the department store counter with lots of bottles of Summer Rain perfume.

Crystal is such a baddie – treating the black woman as if slavery were still in effect, making her break a date, to cook a dinner which Crystal will pass off as her own handiwork. When Stephen breaks their date she brings in the big guns – it’s her birthday and her neuralgia is acting up and her sister is sick etc. Power plays between women in a struggle to hold a man are a phenomenon we can witness today. Those who clamor for verisimilitude have got it.

The fashion show of course is pure satire, and I bet the clothes looked ridiculous even to 1939 eyes, as overwrought as Fellini’s bishop robes in Roma. The woman who announces the styles promises models engaging in the “activities of everyday life” – like going on a picnic in big antebellum dresses.

Symbolic touch – Crystal snaps up the sexy nightgown that Mary planned to buy – as if to say, “You won’t be needing it, dearie.”

Technical comment – Sylvia the troublemaker reflected in a 4-way mirror, assaulting Mary from all sides with her wicked advice. What she’s saying is the most awful thing of all. Stephen has introduced the interloper to Mary’s child, they were seen having lunch in the park. When kids are dragged into an affair, mothers freak out. This is a psychological truth which there is no sense in denying. Now totally off her head, Mary rushes to the confrontation her friends are urging. Naturally Crystal is as slimy and mean as Cruella deVille.

What about the extreme demonstrativeness of Mary’s relationships with her daughter and mother? They’re forever embracing and petting and putting heads in laps. Veterans of group therapy of course are unfazed to view this, but I’m curious to know how 1939 eyes looked at the very physical style of relating in this affectionate family. Why did the director choose it? Was this sort of thing more common back then? Or is the demonstrativeness a conventional exaggeration meant to portray Familial Love, in the same way that Crystal’s gimlet eyes portray Bitchiness?

In Joan Fontaine’s autobiography No Bed of Roses she describes the making of The Women. The story of how Rosalind Russell played sick to coerce the management into giving her equal billing with Shearer and Crawford, also found in Russell’s book, is recounted here. Fontaine says working with George Cukor was a refreshingly pleasant experience.

Directed by: George Cukor
Actors: Joan Crawford, Joan Fontaine, Paulette Goddard, Hedda Hopper, Rosalind Russell, Norma Shearer

Dear Facebook

NOT THIS AGAINDear Facebook,

Add Movies You’ve Watched? WHY???? As a recommendation to the people I connect with via Facebook? Well guess what. The number of movies I’ve watched is much larger than the number of movies I would recommend to anyone I liked and respected.

I’m trying to imagine a universe where anyone gives a flying f*** what movies I have WATCHED. However, occasionally people are interested to know which movies I admire enough, for whatever reason, to recommend. Why don’t you ask me about that, Facebook?

The other reason why Facebook would inquire about movies I’ve WATCHED is to recommend other ones to me, as they have lately taken to doing. But what if I hated 99% of the movies I’ve watched? (Not true, but just as an example.) Why on earth would I want to know about more movies that are LIKE THEM?

And. Even if Facebook recommendations were based only on a complete list of films I have already recommended to other people, in my pantheon of personal hits – so what? Does Facebook not think that I already have a list several pages long, of movies I’d like to get around to seeing? Because movie viewing is never random. Anything I watch nowadays is based on solid reasons and because it’s been on the to-do list, the very long list, for a long time.

And. I don’t watch a lot of movies these days anyway. Between survival and a quaint fondness for a little something called DOING MY OWN CREATIVE WORK, there isn’t much time.

So take your algorithmically derived recommendations, Facebook, and place them gently where the sun don’t shine. About my algorithm, you have not a clue.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Whenever the subject of horror movies is introduced, I stoutly maintain that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the ultimate horror movie. As in, you never need to see another one. I’m prepared to defend at length the proposition that it is an exceptional piece of work which transcends its genre. If I were still taking a film class at Santa Monica College, I could write a paper on it for sure.

I remember liking the sound effects and the music. I read somewhere that one of the victims screams for the last 30 minutes of the film, but I don’t remember that, and it’s the sort of thing I notice, because about 3 seconds of screaming is plenty enough for me. If indeed a woman screams for one-third of the film’s length, it is a testimony to its other elements that I didn’t register it.

I like what The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has in common with Picnic at Hanging Rock – the portentous brooding evil of a bright day. Heat waves shimmering over a green field – how do you make that look sinister?

Hitchhiker is a facially-birthmarked grave robber whose character was based on the actor’s real-life schizophrenic nephew. When Leatherface performs an atrocity one of the lost teenagers, the cannibal father grouses, “Look what your brother did to this door.” Touchingly, Leatherface dresses for dinner in a shirt and tie, and a mask made up with rouge and eyeliner.

The only surviving kid finally gets away, and the most memorable image, fittingly, is the last scene. In the tender pastel light of a dewy dawn, in the middle of a country road, Leatherface is having abandonment issues. Still wearing his white dress shirt and tie and suit jacket, he whirls about in a grotesque frenzied dance of lonely frustration, chain-sawing the empty air.

Leatherface

Once, I recommended The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to a pair of friends. They rented it, watched it, hated it, and have never trusted me since. A like-minded film critic said,

…sadistic in the extreme and unrelieved by any artistic value whatever.

In Gadfly magazine Daniel Kraus, who will be quoted again, wrote,

…it was banned in the U.K., Germany and Sweden for over twenty years. Britain’s chief film censor, James Ferman, damned it as “psychological terrorism” and Harper’s magazine spat that it was, “a vile piece of sick crap . . . Nothing but imbecile concoctions of cannibalism, voodoo, astrology, sundry hippie-esque cults, and unrelenting sadistic violence as extreme and hideous as a complete lack of imagination can possibly make it.”

Michael Bronski speaks of a new aesthetic which…

….probably traceable back to the 1974 Texas Chainsaw Massacre – treats the graphic mutilation of human flesh as a satisfying end in itself.

Just a moment, Mr. Bronski. Okay, for Leatherface, mutilation is an end in itself. I give you that. He lives to wield the chainsaw. It is his passion.

But there is nothing graphic about it. The last time I watched The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it was with the express purpose of tabulating the visible violence, which seems to have been more implied than illustrated. Presumably there is dried blood on Leatherface’s apron, but I don’t think there is a drop of fresh blood. I think the only actual violence we see is, after the girl has been captured and put into a cloth bag, the cannibal father hits and pokes her with a stick.

But even here, the violence is, in the most technical sense, implicit. The odds that the girl is inside the bag approach certainty, but we still don’t see a direct assault on human flesh. It is a fine distinction but an important one, and one I think the director consciously drew.

Of course it could be that the violence is more explicit than I recall. If I’m all wrong about this, please speak up. Tell me in which scene a weapon, or a body part used as a weapon, actually strikes a blow that is shown landing, and I’ll watch the movie again and slap my own forehead in dumbfoundment.

Then again, Kraus says,

It’s the kind of movie where you swear you saw the rusty meat hook sink into the girl’s soft back, when it really wasn’t shown… Was it?

Wilson Bryan Key, author of Subliminal Seduction and Media Sexploitation, claimed that the film had those subliminal horror frames in it, which if true, could explain why some people are so appalled. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is said to have been made on a shoestring budget in seven weeks. It grossed $21 million in the first year, mostly at drive-in theaters. Then, next thing you know, it had made $30 million, and who knows how much by now?

In the summer of ’73 it was hot, hot, hot in Austin. Kraus says,

Under the lights, animal flesh and bone festered and burned, raising a sickly stench… Outside, a doctor applied nausea medicine to vomiting crew members.

As to story’s original inspiration, Kraus says,

The grisly case of Eddie Gein, who simultaneously desired and loathed women reminiscent of his mother, inspired the landmark 1960 film Psycho, as well as the shocker classic Silence of the Lambs. But in the fall of 1974, a film came out that — for sheer, relentless terror — devours them both.

And just in case you ever wanted a complete list of the nastiness promulgated by the real Ed Gein, the Gadfly article provides a full list. But in another publication, director Tobe Hooper told an interviewer,

Our family doctor told me that when he was a pre-med student, he once skinned a cadaver’s face and wore it as a mask to a Halloween party of med school guys. That’s where Leatherface came from; we weren’t consciously ‘doing’ Gein and had done no Gein research.

Vindication is Sweet –
Marks of Distinction Awarded to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (A Partial List)

It was chosen “Outstanding Film of the Year” at the 19th Annual London Film Festival, and shown there again when its 25th anniversary rolled around.

It was shown at the Cannes festival, where Rex Reed said it was the most horrifying motion picture he had ever seen, and was carried in Essential Media, the hippest catalog.

It was acquired (along with The Hills Have Eyes) by the New York MOMA for its study collection. The museum said, “We’re not willing to say yet these films are works of art. There is always a possibility that they will be accepted into our permanent collection but they haven’t been yet….” Then later on, it was accepted as part of the permanent collection.

A report from the 8th International Paris Festival of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films said,

Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre… touted last month by Dan O’Bannon as the state of the art in horror films before Alien, was awaited with the greatest anticipation of any entry. Record crowds, estimated at 5,000 or more, were turned away, causing the first riot outside. When the movie was shown, it turned out to be a heavily censored version, sorely disappointing the audience and almost provoking a second riot.

Ridley Scott, director of Alien, said,

I think there are certain types of underground movies like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre which are frightening beyond belief – really outrageous.

Joe Bob Briggs, author of Profoundly Disturbing: The Shocking Movies That Changed History, was asked by interviewer Sara Rimensnyder, “If you could show the moral nags one movie, what would it be? His answer:

Actually, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which 30 years after its release is still always used as an example of cultural decay and the depravity of mass entertainment. I’d have them tell me what about it revolts them so much. It’s a comedy!

Back when I lived in LA, a trip to the intellectually elevated Nuart Theater, where they kept a request log in the lobby, revealed that it was the most frequently requested film by Nuart patrons.

A review in Playboy said the movie was done with taste and conscience, and,

There are films that skate right up to the border where art ceases to be thrown off and exploitation begins, and those films are often the field’s most striking successes. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of those. I would happily testify to its redeeming social merit in any court in the country…

Daniel Kraus saw it as representing civilization versus the wilderness, “the rural getting revenge for the urbanite sins — business, familial and sexual.” Praising its brutal simplicity and “the sick grandeur of an age-old myth,” he cited “our barely concealed collective nightmare and hidden lust for a world of destruction and negativity.” He also said the film

…re-affirmed our ability to be repulsed and shocked, an ability we lost with the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, the atomic aftermath in Hiroshima, and the concentration camp atrocities of World War II… The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has entered the popular unconscious to such an extent that it effects even those who have not seen it.