Saturday, March 2, 2013

Art Unlike Fine Wine

I've been watching 1930s Bette Davis movies lately, nominally for research. One of the main characters in Highbinder sounded exactly like Bette Davis in All About Eve in my head when I wrote her, but since the book takes place over a decade before that movie was made, I had to see that Davis's elocution sounded just as clipped in the earlier days of her career. I name-checked Davis in the prologue of the book to indicate what the character sounds like and wanted to make sure that was appropriate.

Thursday's was the third I've watched, Marked Woman, after The Petrified Forest and Jezebel. Dark Victory is next, because I've really developed a taste for 30s movies in the last few months, and because three movies is not enough evidence, believe it or not. (She adopted a southern accent in Jezebel, which changed her diction significantly, and she was mushier than I expected in The Petrified Forest. Marked Woman was perfect, just what I wanted to hear. So it's really a tie, so far.)

All of these movies have been worth seeing, and all of them are really problematic, either for one big reason or a scattering of little ones. That seems to be the way with 30s movies. Either they're embarrassingly racist or sexist, or they're off-putting because filmmaking style has changed so significantly in 80 years, or there's something else weird about them such that I can't insist that friends and family sit down with them to see how worthwhile they are. Shit, a movie that's fast rising into my top 10, Footlight Parade, has one bizarrely racist scene - hardly a few seconds of screen time - that means I can't recommend it in good conscience. Even Astaire did blackface after a fashion in Swing Time, by far the best of the Astaire/Rogers movies.

I don't want to turn this post into a discourse on what to do with problematic attitudes in old art, because I am so not qualified to write that. I guess I'm just amazed that I've watched three pretty good 1930s movies in a row that I can't recommend without asterisks. All for different reasons, but still. This is art that hasn't aged well, and I'm very sorry for that, because at times it's phenomenal art. A stirring scene at the end of Marked Woman really didn't make up for the molasses of the first act. A scene in Jezebel that was simply appalling racially also had some of the best acting I've ever seen from Bette Davis, or really from anyone else in that period.

So back to Davis: After all this, three movies and more to come, I told Matt the other night that as good as she is when she's not quite 30, as beautiful and intriguing, she doesn't compare for a moment to herself at 42 in All About Eve. Not even remotely.

In her twenties...
And from Eve

In brief: Youth does not make charisma.

In reading news, I finished By Nightfall, and gave it a big thumbs-down and raspberry. No one is more surprised than me, but this one should have stayed in the drawer. It was static, repetitive, and thoroughly insecure. I couldn't shed the feeling that Cunningham, in trying to show how pretentious and self-obsessed these characters were, only succeeded in showing how pretentious and self-obsessed his own artistic interests are.

I'm presently reading an anthology, Ghosts by Gaslight, a gift from Matt for my birthday [insert shame that it's taken me five months to open it]. It collects Victorian-style ghost stories with a scatter of steampunk. The first story had a good concept but not the best execution, and the second story was reasonably good if paced pretty awkwardly, and that's all the feedback I can offer so far.

I just ordered a book called Revolution in the Head, which is a song-by-song rundown of the Beatles' entire goddamn career. It was excerpted in Slate and given such a positive review that I just had to get it. Stay tuned for more.

Best film quote I heard this week: "Cat dead. Details later." Name that flick?


twinklysparkles said...


I love this post, but the only Bette Davis movie I've ever seen is "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" which I suppose now would look like high camp. Not sure though.

These types of movies informed all of my notions of how women act when they grow up, to wit: all women grow up to be FUCKING INSANE for one reason or another.

This is also how my notion of acting and theater were formed.

I hope today's movies have made a better impression on your generation.


Katharine Coldiron said...

I just watched Baby Jane last week or the week before. It holds up, if you ask me. Terrifying.

You're missing out, though; Bette Davis is divine at a younger age. Don't miss All About Eve. It's one of the most beautifully written movies ever - funny, intelligent, dramatic, truthful.

twinklysparkles said...

Some day I'll see it.

Maybe I need to terrify my children with "Sweet Baby Jane" first though, see what I think....

Thanks K!