Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Lady Pays Off (Douglas Sirk, 1951)

The Lady Pays Off is minor Sirk which translates as "well worth your time." It fits snugly alongside other 1950s films in which the single woman is the ostensible "problem": Joan Crawford's run from Sudden Fear to Autumn Leaves and Sirk's own All That Heaven Allows or Magnificent Obsession. Only where those films dramatize how women "of a certain age" have fallen out of an oppressive sexual economy, The Lady Pays Off features a younger woman who is alone due to her intelligence and outspokenness.

Linda Darnell stars as Evelyn Walsh Warren, a teacher at The Howell School for Girls in Pasadena, California. In the first scene, Evelyn is receiving a Teacher of the Year award. But her mind is elsewhere despite (or, as we'll soon find out, because of) accolades which extend to Time magazine ("Where mother fails, teacher must succeed" screams the cover).

Miles away from the National Educators Foundation spokesman deeming her "Universal Mother," Evelyn hallucinates various romantic dead ends in the items in front of her. In her jello, she sees the wavy image of a Poindexter with strong echoes of dull Harvey (Conrad Nagel) in All That Heaven Allows:

"With your knowledge of children, Evelyn, and my academic background, we can raise a family of unusual intellectual promise. Why, yes, my dear, this is a proposal!"

She pulverizes Poindexter into oblivion with her fork only to be confronted with a more forward proposal in the ash tray.

"Now see here, Evie. I know it's not romantic but...well, I'm a rich man with three lonely kids. I want you for my wife and the kids want you for a mother. Now how 'bout it? Shall we close the deal?"

She snuffs out the rich man and receives a final communication from her champagne glass.

"Oh come on, Lynn, and marry me. Am I that hard to take? I mean it. You're the only woman I've ever met who's just like my mother. Gee, Mom was a grand (kind?)."

Still agitated from these visions of lame Lotharios and Oedipi, Evelyn steps up to accept the award but jettisons all decorum. When asked what she thinks "the woman of today needs most in dealing with the problems of motherhood," she replies "a bottle of whiskey and a psychiatrist!"

It turns out that Evelyn is frustrated because men respect her too much as a teacher to become romantically involved with her. They want a woman who listens, not lectures. (And she doesn't even wear glasses...yet!) Luckily, her much-needed vacation to Nevada has started and Dean Howell (Katherine Warren) enlists her nephew, Ronald (James Griffith), to show Evelyn a good time. But Ronald is yet another Poindexter who has only two modes of communication - drearily droning on about his work at the university in advanced mathematics and lecherously lunging after Evelyn (sometimes he combines both modes: "The other day I developed an irrational equation in quantum mechanics that was almost sexy").

Ronald takes Evelyn gambling but quickly ditches her to try out his mathematical formulas at the tables. Excruciatingly bored, she gets drunk and winds up losing $7000 at the roulette wheel. As the dealer takes her to talk to the boss, the camera pans left to rest on a classic Sirkian shot of Ronald in a mise-en-scene with imperialist masculinity splattered on the walls, most ludicrously a lurid painting of a reclining odalisque that gives off the reassuring vibe John Berger detected in Bouguereau.

And if that weren't enough to critique Ronald, there are some hilarious puns on the word "craps"/"crap" in the dialogue, i.e. his gambling system is crap.

The owner of the casino, Matt Braddock (Stephen McNally), forces Evelyn to work off her debt by spending a few weeks at his home and helping his daughter, Diana (Gigi Perreau), who suffers from mild depression (presumably - the film fails to flesh out this point much). Basically a prisoner in Matt's home, Evelyn at first mistreats Diana in frustration but soon realizes not to take it out on her. Instead, they form one of those cross-generational, pre-feminist bonds Sirk handles so delicately (e.g., Helen and Judy in Magnificent Obsession or Susie and Annie in Imitation of Life) despite Evelyn's rage towards Matt not subsiding a whit.

In a wild scene in which Evelyn's mirror reflection talks to her, she decides to play nice with Matt in order to soften him up so he'll destroy the $7000 IOU.

The remainder of the film concerns Matt's deepening trust of Evelyn as he falls in love with her.

Of particular note is the use of toys in the film (as with There's Always Tomorrow) which stand in for the affection that Diana so desperately craves from her frequently absent father and recently deceased mother. However, the toys, specifically Diana's stuffed dog Pluto, become more prominent (and eerie) in the frame as the film progresses which suggests that despite Evelyn's warmth towards her, the cat and mouse games she and Matt play with one another threaten to leave Diana behind all over again.

Indeed, the very last shot of the film shows Diana addressing her doll ("Parents are such awful children, aren't they?") as Evelyn and Matt embrace on the terrace.

The lady paid off as a mother and now wife and for most of the film, Sirk has shown sympathy for Evelyn's entrapment under patriarchal forms of de facto blackmailing and kidnapping. But in the end, Sirk targets his bile towards the couple as middle-class self-absorption takes center stage. And in fifteen years, the Dianas of the world would reject this lifestyle as the darlings of Swinging London and San Francisco.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Alex Chilton 1950-2010

Not since Kurt Cobain's last day has a celebrity death hit me so hard. I guess I never felt that Alex Chilton got what he deserved although he famously (amongst rock crit types) sang otherwise as Side One came to a close on Radio City. Still, the poptimist in me found it easy to ignore him for the last decade-plus. Case in point: I wrote the review below for the long-departed (and decently paying) online music mag Addicted to Noise (swallowed up by which then obliterated its writers on September 12, 2001) and probably edited by Billy Altman (I think the overtaxed Melissa Price had bowed out by this point) with equal parts fandom and boredom. It's my de facto tribute to a man who had no interest in death (or sleep). (There are only minimal edits below which means the groanworthy "set" puns are preserved.)

Alex Chilton - Set (Bar/None)
Rating: *** (can't recall out of how many)
Release Date: 2/25/00

Somehow wrinkles don't suit Alex Chilton. The crow's feet and leathery nooks in his face on the back cover of Set come as sort of a surprise if not an insult, as if they weathered his veneer too soon. Then again, nothing has ever arrived on time with Alex Chilton going all the way back to the manly croak with which he sang "The Letter" in 1967 as a sixteen year old Box Top and the pimply cracked voice he's been stuck with ever since he debuted Big Star several years later. His has been a career of square pegs fitting through round holes, a doomed condition that will relegate him to cult obscurity forever. Somehow, though, the little star who wrote 1974's "What's Going Ahn," a tortoise-shelled cri de confusion more gut-wrenchingly beautiful than anything in Marvin Gaye's oeuvre, deserves widespread glory.

But really, most of the above is just cultspeak bullshit. We all succumb to the march of time eventually. The real challenge to an artist whose had as long a career as Chilton is to ride every wave so that getting old sounds more thrilling than dying young. Set proves how difficult meeting that challenge is.

You'd think an album that includes instrumentals of jazz standards, spirited retakes of soul classics new and old, and a cover of country sinner Gary Stewart's "Single Again" might make for forty minutes of unbridled enthusiasm. But Chilton has been playing the archaeologist lounge lizard historian since about 1985 occasionally peppering updates of "Volare" or "The Christmas Song" with his own outré originals. Set in his ways, he's crossed off originals altogether on the set list here settling into a release pattern that will yield a disc of personal favorites every few years or so. No wonder Bar/None changed the title from Loose Shoes & Tight Pussy when it was released in France a few months ago.

Set works best when he indulges his love for black music. Brenton Wood's "Oogum Boogum" and Ollie Nightingale's "You've Got a Booger Bear Under There" retell the history of soul as a series of great oddball trifles and Chilton knows how to make oddball sing - with a goofy falsetto whine, that is. And the delightful reading of the ancient reefer song "You's A Viper" never condescends and should get you started on your Stuff Smith obsession even though another cult hero, Wayne Kramer, already blew the dust off it on Hempilation 2 a few years back.

But the band, including Chilton at times, could scarcely care about the proceedings and they play everything loose and sloppy. Nothing fills in with a snap, crackle, or, worst of all, pop. So the instrumentals are particularly brutal in their pointlessness. "April in Paris" compounds the annoyance with multiple false endings. If anything is putting these songs over, then, it's the intermittent energy and joy in Chilton's voice. But as he retreats further into the past, it becomes increasingly difficult to rally behind him as a cultural as opposed to cult hero.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Spin magazine is on Google books!!!!!!

Click here to read John Leland's August 1989 Singles Column, "Temporary Music," my vote for the greatest piece of music criticism ever written.