Monday, April 7, 2014

Bad Girls: Innocent! Evil! Strange!


I fell in love with Edgar G. Ulmer over the weekend. Lately I discovered the endless b-movie and public-domain film choices available on Youtube, and this past weekend I ended up watching Ulmer's 1946 drama-thriller The Strange Woman. The movie narrates the story of insanely manipulative, part-psychopath, evil seductress Jenny Hager--played marvelously by Hedy Lamarr. This is actually my first Hedy Lamarr movie, and I've come to truly respect an actress that is bold and confident enough to play an unlovable and unsympathetic character. Jenny is both those things. I fell asleep half-way through my first viewing, because it was late, and because I didn't really take the movie seriously--but Jenny's personality stayed in my head, so I went back to it the next day and watched it a second time. As much of a sensational-thriller as it is (and the sensationalism is hard to take seriously) I realized that the movie was an interesting character study. Jenny is bad to the bone, and rather unashamed about it too.


The movie is set in the 1800s in Maine. It begins with Jenny's early childhood, where we see her taunt and bully a young boy. I loved the whole childhood sequence--the dreamy studio-set forest and pond. Young Jenny is a cheeky, curly haired girl, with a mischievous nature. She throws a young boy into the pond, then pretends to save him (that should give you a clue into her twisted personality).

 
 

I really love the shot where young Jenny looks down at her reflection in the water. There's a sort of fairy tale-like aesthetic to the world of the story, with the trees, ponds, and hills; yet, if we were in a fairy tale, Jenny would probably be the evil witch that the pure and humble heroine has to defeat. What makes this story interesting is that Jenny is portrayed as the heroine (beautiful, graceful, naive), but on the inside, she's the witch.

.

The story transitions to adult Jenny, a beautiful and carefree young woman whose only concern is to marry a rich man... and eventually she does. After a series of events, she marries an old rich baron. She enjoys the high life and enchants all the townsfolk by acting like the most upstanding, selfless, and caring woman in town. When the baron's son returns, things start taking a dark twist. Jenny is attracted to the baron's son (who is also the same boy she threw into the pond as a little girl). She blatantly flirts with him, and eventually seduces him.


I loved Jenny's look (which is probably just a Hedy Lamarr thing), but at times she reminds me of a farm-girl or a Danish milk maid--except with the evil personality, which adds to the innocent/evil dichotomy of her character. The innocent and virginal look creates such an interesting contrast against her true nature. Lamarr portrayed both sides of Jenny's personality with such ease, sometimes remaining on ambiguous ground, making me wonder whether I was looking at the good Jenny or the bad Jenny.


Jenny eventually gets bored of her boy-toy and moves on to another man: a businessman names Evered that also happens to be her best friend's fiancee. She rejects the baron's son, which drives him to drink and sink into depression, and proceeds to successfully seduce her Evered. He breaks up his previous engagement and marries Jenny, unaware of her evil past.


Again, more dreamy landscapes. There's a poetic aesthetic to Ulmer's 18th century Maine, made up of cloudy skies, wild vegetation, and creepy trees. We're introduced to this fairy tale landscape during her childhood, and brought back to it whenever she is in love with a man (once with the baron's son, and again with Evered). I have a fascination for dreamy Old Hollywood landscapes, and despite their obvious lack of realism, that's probably what draws me to them--that sense of being in a surreal and ethereal world.

After her marriage to Evered, a character conflict pops up, which is Jenny's inability to have children. Then, one of the best parts in the movie: the travelling preacher.

 
 
 

Aside from Jenny, the second most interesting character is Lincoln Pettridge, the travelling preacher that comes to town to bring high-voltage sermons and a fringe-shirt that looks like Roger Daltrey's Woodstock outfit. He preaches fervently and instills fear in everyone--even Jenny. He is the first person to make her question her evilness, and she starts to believe that the cause of her infertility is a punishment for her past actions.


There's a great moment when, after Jenny confesses to Evered all her past shenanigans and seems to be repenting for all wrongdoings, she looks at her reflection in the mirror and gives herself the most subtly evil smirk. It's so Lady Lilith of her, and I think her infertility is not so much a punishment, but has more to do with the fact that she's not that kind of woman: the nurturing and loving mother, or the tame and domesticated wife. She truly is a Lilith character.

And we come to the end, although there's really no mystery to what happens to an evil female character in a 1940s Hollywood movie: they die a tragic death.

 

The fatal ending probably serves to remind women not to be like that! The ending was inevitable and predictable, and although I'd love to see an old Hollywood movie in which an evil woman is not punished for her evilness, the chances are slim. Yet, Hedy Lamarr plays an exciting and fascinating bad girl, and Ulmer offers an interesting narrative behind her motivations, which is more than is offered for most film noir femme fatales.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Catching up is a bitch

 

I have not been good about posting regularly, and I've never really cared too much, but I've had a rush of inspiration lately that brought back the guilt of not documenting all the ideas and things that come my way. 2013 was a rough year, and although there was good and bad, it was also an introspective year--not a much of a "blogging" year. I was more compelled to journal in private, and mainly about personal stuff, rather than write about movies and music. But it was also a curious year, and although I haven't blogged as much, I have been exploring all sorts of things, and I've never felt such an urge to share all the things I find. I'm glad I finally found the "niche" for this blog, or whatever you want to call it, which is focusing on women and girls in films and music (what I've always wanted to focus on to begin with, anyway). The "niche" thing is not so much about attracting readers, but having a gazillion ideas and things in my head, and not knowing where to start, or where exactly I want to go. I do love this blog, because in a way, it has forced me to come out of a shell and motivate myself to write about what I care about. I need to remember that I'm writing for myself first, and not to appease or appeal an "audience," whoever that might be.

Writing about films in a public way was also eye opening, and I realized that I enjoy writing about movies as much (or even more) as I like writing about garage rock and music. I've also started writing regularly on my second blog, which is more personal and photography driven. I'm working on one of my scripts, which I promised myself I'd finish by winter. I've joined the music blog 50thirdand3rd, and I'll be posting my first music review on there. I have a number of blog posts lined up for Hotwax, and I'll try posting at least once a week--for the sake of consistency, and my own.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Bad Girls Round-Up: Best Frenemies Forever

It's been a busy end to the year. I haven't had much time to dedicate to the blog, but I have been keeping busy nevertheless. I wrote a couple of articles for Bitch Flick: the first was a longer and more in-depth analysis of Slumber Party Massacre (which I previously wrote about on this blog post), and the last piece was an ode to Tarantino and his women. I've also watched a lot of movies that I want to write about, and have found a lot of great stuff in the "bad girl" genre. I have some sort of fascination for stories about, or involving, evil and criminal women. I'm planning to start a series dedicated to bad girls in films. There are two movies I've seen recently that I want to start off with: Henri-Georges Clouzot's Les Diaboliques (1955) and Kim Ki-young's Hanyo (1960).


Les Diaboliques is a French movie about a wife and her husband's mistress teaming up to murder him, while Hanyo (also known as The Housemaid) is a South Korean thriller about an unstable young woman who is hired as a housemaid and ends up creating havoc in the household. There is, however, a similar between the movies, which is the idea of women "frenemies," or women teaming up and hating each other at the same time.

Poster and screenshots of Les Diaboliques from here
I loved Les Diaboliques. It begins as a simple murder story with two intriguing female protagonists, but half-way through it becomes a different movie—a creepy thriller in which the wife, Christina, is haunted by her dead husband's ghost. It seems that it's not so much the murder that drives the story, but rather the strange friendship between the two women. Christina is very interesting, and although she's the most tame and meek out of the two women, she does have a dark side to her. Nicole is the typical blonde, femme-fatale bombshell, a hybrid between Betty Rizzo and Catherine Tramell from Basic Instinct (and I wasn't surprised that the role was played by Sharon Stone in the 1996 American remake).

The relationship between the women is rather intriguing, if not strange. Nicole is having an affair with Christina's husband, which in the real world would make them enemies, but they team up to murder him and appear to be supportive of each other. Of course, the ending is a whole different movie in itself as well. But I won't spoil it.


Hanyo is the first and only movie I've seen by Ki-young, and one of the first things I noticed is that the world of the story is filled with no-good women. Every female character, no matter how innocent they appear, seem to have evil on their mind. To sum it up, Hanyo is a long and twisted tale about the dangers of having a attractive young housemaid who can easily tempt the man of the household. For a movie made in 1960, not to mention South Korea, the film was incredibly ahead of its time. The housemaid in the movie is a young and unstable woman played by the incredibly creepy and amazingly talented Eun-shim Lee, who seduces the husband and becomes increasingly clingy and jealous of him and his wife (basically the basis for Fatal Attraction, which came out two decades later). But events escalate dangerously and gruesomely, and even the innocent wife reveals an evil side. One of the interesting aspects of the story is the twisted relationship between the housemaid and the wife, who both hate each other but continue to live under the same roof. At one point they both "share" the husband, which the wife consents to. They're not exactly friends, but it would be too easy to label them enemies: both women have an unspoken mutual understanding that the husband "belongs" to them and is under their thumb.

I thoroughly enjoyed both movies. More bad girls will be on the way, but in the meantime, indulge your vixen-self with these bad mamas!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Say It Again, Lou

Via Creem Magazine
Lou Reed passed away Sunday morning, and reminiscing about him and his music brought back many memories from my teens. During those years, the CBGB bands were very dear to me. Twice a week, I would stay up till 2 AM, waiting to tune in to the Underground Garage, where I was first introduced to so many garage rock and punk bands. I remember listening to Television's "Marquee Moon" late one night, and among the many bands I was discovering during those curious years, the New York bands cradled me to to sleep in a different way. Bands like Television and the Velvet Underground were not as optimistic and joyful as the bands from the 60s, but that harsh reality was comforting. They didn't hide in a world of "incense and peppermint" and psychedelic groovy-ness. Television and the Velvet Underground took reality for what it was: meaningless, harsh, and all in all, a little shitty, but they always found something worth singing (or dancing) about.

I remember listening to "Rock & Roll" and feeling like it was written about someone like me, a lonely and confused teen who had been let down by the euphoria and false ideals of a past generation, and was saved by rock and roll—but not the same rock and roll music that my parents grew up on, it was a grittier response to the past generation, just like 90s grunge was a slap in the face at the unrealistic fantasy that was the 80s.

The first Velvet Underground albums I bought were a discounted bundle of three albums: The Velvet Underground and Nico, White Light/White Heat, and their self-titled album. I remember listening to The Velvet Underground and Nico on repeat, and when I was ready for the White Light/White Heat, that was on repeat as well. "Walk on the Wild Side" was the first Lou Reed solo song I ever heard, and I remember thinking of that song when I first visited New York City and roaming the streets of Manhattan. In particular, I thought of that song while I was in SoHo and it started to rain—although SoHo in the rain is not mentioned in the lyrics, that was essentially the spirit of the song: a hot mess of a generation finding a moment of poetry in chaos.

I remember when I became obsessed with the song "Romeo had Juliette"—first with the catchy tune, then the vivid imagery, and finally with the underlying motif, which is found in many of Lou Reed's music: the apathy and cynicism of New York and modern society. Yet, it was that song that made me realize that he was more than a punk musician, but a poet in his own way. I remember reading a Rolling Stone article, and whoever the writer was, he perfectly described Lou Reed's music: an autumnal romantic decant. A true artist is capable of finding romanticism even in the most lurid aspects of modern life; the modern artist is realistic, but not in the sense that he/she is lacking a romantic nature, but with the realization that we are urban animals (especially if you live in New York), and the poetry is in the dirty city streets, in the junkies and misfits that roam those streets, and retracing the meaning of things that have long lost meaning. In "Romeo had Juliette," the song comes to a climax as we watch the crack dealers, the dead cop, and Manhattan island sink into the Hudson—yet, Romeo sees something flicker, and maybe it's hope, and maybe it's something else, but life continues even after Manhattan is gone.

I understand Lou Reed's music with greater depth in later years, now that I'm more grounded in realism rather than the dreamy idealistic teen I was. Yet, Lou's music reminds me that imagination, and finding beauty in things, is what keep you sane in this crazy world.