Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Spy Who Shagged Me

Josef von Sternberg made six more films with Marlene Dietrich, after directing her 1930 debut, Der blaue Engel. While her supporting role in Der blaue Engel showcased Dietrich's confident and empowered on-screen sex appeal, Dishonored (1931) further capitalizes on that breakthrough by featuring her as the star of a Spy Film where her missions all require her to "use her body as a weapon."
Von Sternberg's legacy is sex and glamour. Typically he also uses exotic settings, such as Austria in Dishonored. And it is in this film where one may observe his innovative medium close-ups of his lead actress, which show the woman backlit and filmed in soft focus. The backlight (sometimes called a hairlight) gives Dietrich a halo effect, accentuating her swirling tresses with silver. But another effect of the backlight, which is placed above and behind the actress, is to leave a deep shadow under her chin. This shadow gives her face a quality that makes it look like a porcelain mask, and it's funny that this film's central motif is the masquerade.
Dishonored opens with the iconic image of a formally attired Agent X-27 (Dietrich), veiled, pulling up one of her thigh high silk stockings--this image also bookends the film. Like Lola Lola, there is absolutely nothing life can throw at this woman that could even come close to cracking her icy cool veneer. X-27 is more though. She's "not afraid of life, of course [she's] not afraid of death either." And she's fearlessly clever, always up for a party, a master of disguise and just so happens to have a pet black cat with her at all times.
The film's romantic cynicism is embodied in the recompense the Austrian military gives X-27 for all of her service. In one of the more bizarre climaxes of classic Hollywood, we await the execution of X-27 before a firing squad while she smugly defies any sense of panic, glammed up and applying lipstick as she (and we) wonder if anyone would actually be able to shoot a woman who looked this good (and who, it is subtly suggested, fucked most of, if not all, the men who are raising their rifles at her--the prurient subtext abounds throughout the film).
Victor McLaglen has real chemistry opposite Dietrich. And his Russian military uniform maintains the masquerade motif--I forgot to mention, von Sternberg also spares no detail with costumes.
If von Sternberg's influence seems to pop up in some of Kubrick's (or Ophüls') costume dramas regarding mise en scène, then Strauss' "Blue Danube Waltz" played during the party scene may have been partly responsible for the space ballet sequences in 2001: A Space Oddyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick). But there's no way to know--I'm probably reaching. The party is what ultimately caused my appreciation for von Sternber's delirious, baroque decorative touch. The frame is crowded with streamers and elbow to elbow party guests masked, continuously blowing party favors erect. And somehow, in spite of all of this clutter, the camera omnisciently sweeps up and down as it cranes and pans.
For me this artifact is timeless. But in a way, it's almost more risque than anything else I can think of from modern films. For instance, the scene where X-27 seduces the adjutant is uncomfortably kinky. After we follow a cut and find them drunk in his room, X-27 pretends she's a child as foreplay. Was this a request on the adjutant's part? An offer? It's a little creepy.
Finally, I'd just like to point out one more instance of how far this film goes in its unabashed camp sensibilities. In addition to the vagina as weapon of mass destruction, and the spy who somehow always gets to have her black cat with her (even when imprisoned for treasonous acts), the central plot device here is also one of the classic screen maguffens. X-27 has to find a piece of music that the Russians have that will potentially kill thousands of Austrians (Umm, how exactly?).
And I wish I could say more about the lighting in this movie. Some directors just got that knack--the play between light and shadow here are wonderfully displayed.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

what's good in life

Further to my notes of last week sometime, the Completely Un(re)searchable & Myfterious SE, purveyors of RoHs Quality, have proven themselves worthy enough. At press time, this writer had not mastered the striking of sparks with the steel/magnesium; but the headlamp had proved on the instant of its deployment the superior form of light dispersal.

Particularly indispensable is the oft'-elided red LED option. In field tests, this writer frequently found himself grinding his teeth as others without the red LED option blinded the everloving [redacted] out of him by training their candlepower-supplemented gaze 'pon his face. Whereas projecting the field of one's vision in cool long red waves is, at least, less annoying and abusive than other alternatives. To say nothing of the lack of crippling jaw/neck pain often earlier occasioned by lengthy interlucdes of holding one's two-AA Maglite uniformly between one's lips, or more firmly and enamel-abradingly between chipped front teeth. If you want to camp, you want a headlamp. This one works fine.

Other Thing

An aging rocker dude of the DIY persuasion once had a long, frustrating couple of weeks. His enjoyment of doing hobbies had palled somewhat. In part because DIY practices can infect all processes/products with what Kipling termed the "rather more-or-less" and what everybody else calls the "half-assed". In part because DIY techniques often focus on the accessible or attainable at the expense of the (task-) appropriate and specialized.

Anyway, in his badly-patched skinny jeans the aging rocker dude making nachos in his filthy ruin of a kitchen spat to no-one (not even the chair)

I'm DONE using shoddy shit, I'm done half-assing it, I'm done fucking around and doing things badly just for the sake of doing them myself. Life's too short. Here on out, I'm using good things, I'm sticking to what I'm good at, & I'm insisting on high quality in myself, my activities, and my surroundings.

Then the aging rocker got excited by his new load of surplus and he used his new Army-style can opener to open a can of refrieds for his nachos.

It worked quite well.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Fat hearts American Science & Surplus

It's a small list of brands still worth caring about in this world. One of the few that will reliably bring some magic into your world is American Science & Surplus, self-bestowers of the basically irrefutable tagline "incredible stuff, unbelievable prices".

I get a catalog from these guys every 6 months or so, order something about every year, basically just so I keep getting that catalog, a minor miracle of the copywriter's trade. Pun-filled and crackling with line-drawing illustrations, it's not unreasonable to assert that the only product manufactured by AS&S is of higher quality than the panoply of products they distribute. --Not that the goods on offer here are necessarily shoddy or disappointing: they're just invariably presented both amusingly and in their best light.

For example, picked literally at random from a number I discovered while trying desperately to dig my way out from under what appears to be seven (7) London Review of Books, four (4) Harper's, and a lot (sigh) of New Yorkers to get through:

Wind-up Vehicular Fridge Magnet
From our Unlikely Combination Division comes our first-ever wind-up vehicle capable of climbing any vertical ferrous-metal surface, like your filing cabinet or (non-stainless) fridge, thanks to tiny embedded magnets. Also chugs along on the horizontal. Measures 1-7/8" x 1-1/2" x 1-3/4" tall with the winder. In assorted colors that we'll decide on, thank you very much.


You get some good gifts out of this catalog: a little penknife with a built-in flashlight, a life-sized white plastic skull, an inflatable moose head... And you can score some useful prizes with a sharp eye: as illustrated, I just ended up with a couple nice little funnels, some of those Army-style can openers, and a firestarter--all just in time for a quick camping trip in the redwoods! Sure, my Swiss Army knife does a creditable job on cans, when necessary, and I already had one metal funnel exactly the size of my new one, and I'm a little unsure about the quality of that headlamp, and maybe graph paper has proved to be the only sure-fire way to induce writer's block I've so far discovered...but that little glass funnel? Pretty. And a cheapo headlamp is something I'll not be afraid to use/abuse the hell out of, which is exactly what a man wants/needs on a camping trip...

And, writer's block or no, the AS&S stock of graph paper takes ink better than any comparable product I've ever owned--fun to scrape a stylus on. Anyway, if you like small boxes of pleasing things &/or advertising produced with a light heart & lighter touch, AS&S is well worth your time.

Side note: As for camping gear, I've spent half my life on Coleman products--they're cheap, but they're not very good. Sort of what you buy when you don't want to step all the way up to Stansport (to say nothing of outfitting oneself primarily in Coughlan's kit). I note, however, that all the camping items in this latest batch were from some company called, helpfully, SE. I suspect these will turn out to be a step down from Coleman. To put it another way, I suspect they will turn out to be useable, if perhaps occasionally frustrating. As for the quality, I shall defer to the text on the headlamp: "RoHs Quality", which, I mean...I really shouldn't have to explain RoHs Quality by this point. Reviewiera has been cranking out the finest in objective subjectivisms since 2006, for fuck's sake. To help guide me discover the uses of these SE items--of RoHs Quality--I shall turn to the packaging:

Stainless Steel Funnel
Great for Pouring Liquids into Flasks, Small Containers, Jars, etc..
Nylon Shafts
Flexible yet durable glass filled nylon shafts resist fracturing
Magnesium Fire Starter
Gently Shave [always, always good advice, there] a Small Quality of Magnesium [less good, but worth a shot]
8 LED Headlamp
Adjust inclination if needed.

--Fat, adjusting his inclination

Friday, August 05, 2011

Bitch Problem

Often I have compared movies to women; a whirlpool from which my gaze cannot escape; a search for understanding.
Personally, I wonder if I go too far seeing things in binary terms. (Like, I like girls and movies.) But I feel Der blaue Engel (1930, Josef von Sternberg) has just cause for this perspective. The plot centers around Rath (Emil Jannings), an aging college professor, and his tragic downfall after falling helplessly over travelling cabaret star Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich). These two principal characters depict a pair of one of the most extreme generalizations of how to live life. She is sharp, tough and cynical--takes the hand she's dealt. He is a bitch, weak and sentimental--he curls into a slobbering mess and cries. This distinction alone suffices to cement this film's place in the canon of feminist cinema.
I can't believe when I first saw this movie I empathized with Rath. To identify with his docile victimization is naive and masochistic. Furthermore, I am dismayed to have scorned the Lola character, reproaching her betrayal of this man who loved her so dearly. Lola has real problems, but doesn't let them get to her. She's also a victim, but by fighting, instead of giving up like Rath, she's actually the more virtuous. This brings me to another pair of themes.
The film's title comes from the name of the nightclub Lola first performs in where Rath sees her--The Blue Angel. As a woman, Lola is a contradiction of just these terms. She's an angel onstage and in public; while she's blue in her private life. That's my guess, anyway.
Rath doesn't see Lola for the woman she is, and that is his undoing. It's also evident in the songbird that dies during the film's introductory Rath sequence. Rath doesn't even comprehend that the bird is dead. It is as though he is incapable of appreciating that the bird is mortal--he just expects it to sing and keep him company. Although I don't empathize with Rath, I feel sorry for the tragic ending he represents and hold it as a warning of what can happen if you act like a bitch.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

America: where unhappiness counts as good

I got something to say
I killed your baby today
and it doesn't matter much to me
as long as it's dead

I assume I will not be the first to point out the horrifying addiction American media has to the asinine notion that "there's always two sides to a story", and the policy of "equal time" it has lead to, which policy ensures that a filthy liar will always, always, have a powerful public platform from which to holler nonsense.

I may be the first to point out, however, the way that pathetic non sequitur--clearly false on the face of it--leads our beloved, trusted, chosen repeaters of others' falsehoods to find the following nostrum peculiarly pleasing:

I always find, even going back to the days that I practiced law, if people walk out of the room and parties are all disatisfied, that's a pretty good settlement.

I don't mean to pick on Harry Reid, except that he's a noxious shill for (other) rich, powerful wretches--it's far from his fault that his idiot formulation is catnip to NPR*. It's an important part of his very job to ensure that he is not asked to answer substantive questions. It's up to him to throw out savory distractions, to say things his putative interlocutors will find irresistably quotatious, and my beef's not with him. Rather, it's with grown-ass people whose job is nominally to exhibit curiousity, even cynicism, about the words and deeds of others.

*Where I get most of my news.

But since I am not read by any actual journalists, and since I am a complete goddamned hack, I will try to illustrate the idiocy of the idea that when everybody's unhappy, the deal's been a good one by means of a brief encounter between Glenn Danzig and Harry Reid.

Glenn Danzig: I got something to say
I killed your baby today
and it doesn't matter much to me
as long as it's dead

Harry Reid: I do not like that. I wish you had killed someone else.

Glenn Danzig: I do not care.

An Arbitrator: Glenn, you must pay Harry Reid three dollars and 87 cents as restitution for killing his baby.

Glenn Danzig: :(

Harry Reid: :(

Note here that everybody is unhappy, therefore the deal is good. Go fuck yourself, Harry Reid, and pull your goddamned heads out of your asses, NPR, and swab the shit from your ears, so you can actually tell when somebody is feeding you a stinking load of self-serving lies that are obviously false and stupid.

--Fat, loathing this country

This one goes out to the redoubtable Tyrrany of Tradition blog, which is all killer and no filler. And to the HC Headlines twitter feed, which helped remind me today that I never stopped loving some hardcore records, probably mainly because I am now & forever predisposed to a genre encouraging me to respond to every event or emotion with STRIDENT, INCOHERENT REPETITION. And thanks to my main man Mr. Forklift Jihad for providing the title. No thanks to Harry "bootlicking" Reid, and not much thanks to Glenn "fucking mortals" Danzig.

(Thanks to Can't Stop the Bleeding for that one.)