Monday, June 11, 2007

Kenyon Review

I had seen Daisy Kenyon two, maybe three times on video before catching it at MoMA. It's one of my very favorite films.

As a general rule (there are exceptions) I loathe going to see melodramas or noirs in public. My experience just never jibes with the vocal majority, who chuckle and guffaw throughout any number of lines they perceive as too "quaint," or which they perceive as howlers. I can even sympathize (though not empathize so much) with this kind of behavior when we're looking at a given film as a relic of the slightly older or outmoded idiocies of the past (even as these same audiences might be loathe to laugh at contemporary idiocies)--such as a film that insists on its women characters being housewives and mothers to be happy, or some such nonsense. (But this does not describe Daisy Kenyon, a film with a very strong female character based on a novel by a feminist writer and agitator that explicitly problematizes and dramatizes the attempts of its three-dimensional male characters to pigeonhole and control its three-dimensional female protagonist.)

Assuming a certain baseline of good manners (keep talking to a quiet mininum, turn off cell phones, don't get into fistfights), I think people are entitled to any kind of reaction and experience in the movies that comes naturally to them. I don't, rationally, begrudge people their right to guffaw even as it annoys me to no end while I experience it. At the same time it just really pains me to see certain classical Hollywood films that I love (as I said, melodramas are the worst; followed by noirs) just laughed through. Maybe I over-value the sustained intensity of only certain scenes in an overall work; but generally in films that really deeply move me in some kind of "serious" way, I can't bring myself to just laugh very much. (Understand that this is a matter of temperament and disposition--my own personal psychology--only; I am quite happy with the inverse: outright comedies that slip in moments or through-lines of pathos, gravity, sorrow, etc. I have fewer personal problems crying at a "dumb" comedy than heartily laughing at parts of a film that's captivated me on a serious "dramatic" level. Which is no doubt why I like the Farrelly Brothers.) So when I watch Daisy Kenyon I usually tear up at parts; I'm moved deeply and my body may constrict into a tightly-wrung ball because of the intensity of the experience; and I don't let out belly laughs when Peter (Henry Fonda) complains about how they changed Sixth Avenue to Avenue of the Americas (a sad and suggestive line, to me, that the MoMA audience found just hilarious for some reason).

When I saw Sirk's Shockproof a few months back, I had the misfortune of sitting in front of a trio of people who, from their conversation before the movie even, were clearly there to laugh, to enjoy some kitschy and fabulous "old movie." (I can't identify with the impulse of people who say they like "old movies" and act as though they've told you something substantive, just as I don't understand when people say they do or do not like "foreign films." Which ones!?) To me there's the distanciation of 'camp,' and then there's something else: the consumption of the cinema of the past for the more-or-less condescending enjoyment of its various inadequacies to the contemporary viewer. And I just can't, can't, can't bring myself to feel aligned with this viewer.

* * *

There are certain types of masterpieces in classical Hollywood--Ford's great films, McCarey's, some of Hawks', The Strawberry Blonde, I Walked with a Zombie--that are almost too delicate for me to see them outside of a totally sympathetic audience. (Ford and Hawks are a little different because of the bawdy humor and machismo that permeates them, too: but the tenderest and most lyrical moments in either are so overwhelming to me that I have to group them here.) Atmosphere has something to do with it, but it's not fundamentally a matter of atmosphere. It's about my personal relationship to, or categorization of, these works. See, the "other" kind of Hollywood masterpiece, one that's a little further from my heart if not my head (on average) is something that I think could sustain a lot of camp-laughter and crowd distractions: most Hitchcock, a lot of Preminger (just not Daisy Kenyon), Billy Wilder, a lot of Westerns (since a lot are meant to elicit knowing laughter in parts), a lot of musicals (ditto)--and with these I can deal with audiences sniggering their way through the running times. But with something like Daisy Kenyon, I confess ... I want almost total silence, I want everybody to share the exact same overwhelming experience I'm sharing. (An authoritarian fantasy, I'm aware, but it's just a fantasy--I've no intention to try to construct a rational argument supporting my internal wish.) Reverence: because I'm an atheist, a materialist (but with a religious and arts-loving upbringing) I think this should be reserved for art and for the dead. Not in all instances; but all instances of it should be for these things, since "we" (I) no longer use them at Mass.

* * *

Anyone interested should read the
24fps Daisy Chain -- me with Damien Bona and Dan Sallitt, a series of brief letters the three of us exchanged regarding Preminger's film.

* * *

Obviously, I haven't actually been talking about Daisy Kenyon yet, but rather about myself, and about my feelings for other people's reactions. The solipsism is hard to shake. But this film really is something to see. It's amazing that Preminger (so he said) couldn't recall even making the film, late in life; that it's widley regarded as "just another" Crawford vehicle. For classical Hollywood it's not matched by very much at all, if you ask me--Only Angels Have Wings, Notorious, Make Way for Tomorrow, a handful of Fords, and a few others maybe. One of the interesting things about it is how well it translates the idea of the literary character on film (for the film comes from a literary, or at least fictional, source) ... usually this is a pipe dream, an unfair expectation that the middlebrow mainstream keeps for the commercial cinema. But in Daisy Kenyon the dream comes alive, and we have that elusive thing, the Three Dimensional Character--actually, we have half a dozen of them. Evaluating this film in terms of character dynamics and psychology (usually such a fruitless, dead-end activity in standard commercial film products) is like watching a big machine, a bunch of pulleys and gears, with no beginning and no end, where every part changes from its original function or expression from the first time you laid eyes on it.

And Preminger--he wasn't so much as the great objective/neutral auteur of classical Hollywood as much as he was the era's greatest whitewater rapids-kayaker of myriad tumultuous perspectives: not coldly objective or ambiguous, but rather full of balanced and lively antagonisms. Durgnat once made a stinging and partly accurate observation that Preminger's cinema offends 'everyone a little and nobody much.' But Daisy Kenyon, which comes from the earlier years, before Preminger got very ambitious, doesn't suffer from the sensationalism of mandatory Issue-mongering, even though it deals tangentially with such ripe issues as modern womanhood, governmental anti-Japanese discrimination, divorce, the moneyed classes, and the experience of war veterans.

Plus, Daisy Kenyon has maybe the most unassumingly impressive last line in cinema--it doesn't sound at all impressive out of context (because it isn't) , so I won't spoil it, but it does crystalize a certain through-line of the dramatic content that maybe doesn't make sense to a first-time viewer until that very end moment.

Such a strange film--after several viewings I still can't quite get at why it looks, sounds, and feels (on a moment-to-moment basis) so perfect, so arresting ...

7 comments:

edwardgrobinson said...

this definitely touches a chord with me.

noirs are hard to watch in theaters because of the extreme reactions of the audiences, which never fail to irritate me to the point of walking out.

i've seen "double indemnity" three times in my life in theaters, and the rapid-fire fred macmurray line "i'm crazy aboutya, baby!" has never failed to elicit howlers. yeah, the earnestness of the line is slightly funny, but i've always felt that this was a bit of an overreaction -- the laughter being done for the benefit of those around them in the theater rather than out of genuine humor...

not to put down "camp," but i've always found that those who seek it out are slightly-less-than-serious people once they emerge into the daylight.

in the theater, though, they can be a real pain in the...

Campaspe said...

What a great post. You hit on one of the reasons I do not always try to seek out certain old movies on the big screen. My worst experience in this regard was with Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers. The movie is essentially an opera, a tragedy played at the highest dramatic pitch possible. Well, the most highly emotional scenes were eliciting snarky laughter. EdwardG is right on all points, so much of the laughter is a kewl-kidz phenom, meant to impress those around them. Oooh, you are so hip, so cool, I wanted to say to the gigglers -- so you snicker like Beavis and Butthead at the first sign of strong emotion on screen.

The primary lesson I took from this screening was that if it is, as you say, something that is delicate in any way, and the NY Times reviews it (as it had the Visconti), don't bother going. The audience will make you despair for the future of film preservation.

Anyway, I am now on a mission to see Daisy Kenyon, in the comfort of my own living room. :)

Bill W said...

The behavior you describe enrages me, and it's increasingly hard to escape.

Thanks, I will probably try to catch DK at MoMA next Monday.

Alex said...

My then-girlfriend had to restrain me during a showing of Phil Karlson's The Phenix City Story (an extremely powerful and woefully ignored southern-fried gangster movie). The strange man in front of us apparently saw the film as an opportunity to laugh throughout at the film's intentionally rough documentary quality. In fact, part of the film IS a documentary - the actual people of Phenix City, Alabama were on the screen.

If you haven't seen the movie, it's extraordinarily brutal, even for Karlson, a brutal director (who filmed John Payne getting beaten up something like 12 times over several movies). A child is murdered and thrown casually on a lawn. An elderly cripple is shot in the mouth. People are beaten in the streets and routinely murdered (as one of the real residents of Phenix City states, most male residents of the town always went about heavily armed).

And this guy was laughing all the way through. I was seriously about to go John Payne on him.

Martin said...

Wonderful post, Zach. I've had similar experiences with Aldrich's The Legend of Lylah Clare, a masterpiece whose reputation has unfortunately been tarnished by its "camp" label. I guess the vicious satire was taken all too seriously. Perhaps to soften the blow.

Now I definitely have to see Daisy Kenyon. I was primarily interested in the movie as a Joan Crawford fan, but having read so many intelligent articles about it, it's going on top of my Joan Crawford list, ahead of the Borzages :)

Zach Campbell said...

Well it's always good to be reminded I'm not alone.

Alex, I haven't seen The Phenix City Story but that sounds awful. Likewise I haven't seen Lylah Clare, Martin (though I've got that one on a letterbox video dub). I think Borzage's Mannequin is really good, btw.

Campase, if you have trouble tracking down a video copy of Daisy Kenyon feel free to get in touch with me and we can work out a loan.

Anonymous said...

I was so impressed by the film DAISY KENYON that I found the book (out of print) and read it--thinking I was going to be treated to a more in depth look at the characters.

The book was much more complex than the movie-- seems that Daisy always knew it wouldn't work out with Dan--didn't want it to work out as she understood the kind of man he was-- and also wanted to be free to live her life. When Pete came around she was bored with Dan-- she knew he would never be faithful to her if they did get together. Dan admits he knows she didn't want him in a permanent way. Daisy chooses Pete because he needs her--but at the same he is modern enough to insist she doesn't give up hers for him. Actually, the book is set just before and as America goes to war-- (1940-41) The film is post war -- this puts a whole different emphasis on Daisy's relationship with Pete in tht he enlists 8 months after they are married. When Dan "rapes" her this is the turning point for her. It makes her realize that Dan never had respect for her and that she was right about never wanting him totally in her life.This rape scene takes places when Pete is away in basic training and Dan's wife listens in on the phone call as Dan is apologizing to Daisy for the rape. Lucille never asks for a divorce.In the book, Dan threatens his her with divorce to stop her from hurting Daisy by getting in touch with Pete when he is in basic training. There is no question that Dan will divorce his wife for Daisy because Daisy never waivers in her love for Pete and her dislike for who Dan really is.

In the end, Daisy Kenyon is more about another philanderer getting what he deserves--and the long suffering wife who puts up with it because she doesn't have the guts to be alone.

I must say I liked the movie for its melodrama but book is actually more real to life.