Corpses from the dream factory: “Pennies from Heaven” and spatial horror

•July 7, 2008 • 1 Comment

Going to the cinema results in an immobilization of the body. Not much gets in the way of one’s perception. All one can do is look and listen. One forgets where one is sitting. The luminous screen spreads a murky light through-out the darkness. Making a film is one thing, viewing a film another. Impassive, mute, still the viewer sits. The outside world fades as the eyes probe the screen.

Robert Smithson, “A Cinematic Atopia”

At thirteen, my first viewing of Herbert Ross’s Pennies from Heaven was a dissonant and unnerving experience. I loved the film for reasons I didn’t understand, and I was unprepared for the disquiet which lingered after watching it; the film left me with impressions of images which didn’t fit with their expected context and the narrative took turns I wasn’t used to assimilating from my movie-watching experiences. On that first viewing I barely understood the point of the film, but it was still surprising the degree of resonance and visceral revulsion the film inspired in my ill-informed adolescent mind. I hadn’t encountered anything quite like it; vintage pop songs and spectacular dance numbers were used to underscore a terrifying universe full of failure, broken aspirations, spiritual impotence and rotten luck. After twenty-six years and some reflection, Pennies strikes me as a horror film, as unsettling and nihilistic in its treatment of film genre, spectatorship and visual space as a work by Stanley Kubrick or Michael Haneke.
Packaged as a big-studio Steve Martin film and advertised as a happy, honey-drenched look at happier times, the film is remarkable for its sly critique of nostalgia and the dangers of spectatorship as escapism. For its characters, acts of dreaming were dangerous propositions, their aspirations dashed under the oppressive weight of a moribund economic reality despite the delusions of happiness offered by popular culture. For the film’s audience the experience is nearly as risky as their expectations of genre, content, and conventional cinematic pleasures are subverted by an acidulous hand-slapping from the filmmakers. The audience’s only assurance is that this will be a tuneful descent into Hell.
Pennies from Heaven

Disembodied perceptions: Pennies from Heaven

Dennis Potter’s 1978 BBC teleplay which inspired Herbert Ross’s 1981 film was, like Potter’s The Singing Detective, a critique of pop-cultural diversions and the ironies of popular music contrasted with the dreary and occasionally tragic lives of its characters. Pennies From Heaven‘s Depression-era setting struck an even sadder note than The Singing Detective. Detective leavened its ironies through a plot device of a hospital patient who drifted in and out of the fictive creations in his head and he was completely aware of the contextual dichotomies of his situation, unlike the poor schmucks in Pennies who weren’t nearly as in control of their fates. I didn’t become acquainted with the BBC series until 2004, when it became available on DVD some sixteen years after the original broadcast (it was actually unseen between 1981 and 1990 due to legal disputes amongst MGM, Dennis Potter and the BBC). Ross’s film shared the basic plot points of the original television series, and retained the basic paradigm of the musical form (characters bursting into song), a device employed with self-referential artificiality: the original vintage music tracks were used so that the actors would clearly lip-sync to the songs performed by other vocalists, which created an odd displacement of traditional character-and-music correlations.
Deco settings, dismal lives

Deco settings, dismal lives

It isn’t so much a process of watching the characters express themselves through song so much as watching the characters imagining themselves expressing their thoughts through song which distinguishes this film’s use of classic film musical vernacular. Ross’s film also took the visual component of the story further through extraordinary production values—whereas the original show’s characters would go into their musical numbers with no change in the visual space, Pennies ’81 employed lavish sets and extreme theatricality and stylization to illustrate an even greater contrast between the glamor of the cinematic universe and the grim reality of the characters’ lives in the moments in between their musical reveries.
My baby says Yes, Yes...

My baby says Yes, Yes...

As a critique of genre, Pennies expresses a harsh ambivalence towards the escapist pleasures of the film musical; in every such interlude the joy expressed by the characters’ musical reverie is ultimately exposed as a self-indulgent trap, a method of escapism and psychic self-preservation which nonetheless fails at resolving or even ameliorating the dereliction of said characters’ lives. Insofar as its function as a musical, Pennies employs its musical numbers not as extensions of emotional exposition (as in almost every classic Hollywood musical) but to a large degree as instruments of failure, tuneful Grim Reapers undercutting the fragile aspirations of the Depression-wracked sad sacks who populate the narrative.

Gold Diggers of 1933

Gold Diggers of 1933

Arthur fails at getting a business loan at the uncaring, cold financial institution, so the musical number which immediately follows (Yes, Yes) is a fantasy of monetary profusion. Arthur’s wife Joan suspects Arthur of infidelity, and the subsequent musical interlude (It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie) is accompanied by her fantasy of stabbing him with scissors; jolted back into the “real” world, she passively accepts his sexual rejection of her. Eileen (Arthur’s mistress) interrupts her workday as a schoolteacher with a splashy MGM-infused number co-starring her pupils, a reverie interrupted by the news that she is about to lose her job over her illegitimate pregnancy. The Accordian Man’s dance in the rain (Pennies From Heaven) expressing a joy of abundance is quickly contradicted by a return to reality of his circumstances; poverty, destitution and madness.

Pennies From Heaven, singing in the rain

Pennies From Heaven, singing in the rain

The isolation experienced by the characters in Pennies From Heaven was expressed not only in the characters’ inability to connect emotionally with one another, but also in the visual space created in the musical sequences; the musical numbers expatiated by their individual subconscious also functioned as visual sequestration of the individual characters’ consciousness from the larger narrative. As a result, these musical interludes often bore a contradictory relationship to the actual events of the larger narrative. Arthur’s fantasy of Eileen as a vision of beauty offering him a kiss in the sheet-music store serves to illustrate his degree of sexual desperation and idealization of her as an untouchable paragon of purity, but narratively his eventual coupling with Eileen results in a series of tawdry gropings far removed from his musical-fantasy meeting with her.
Arthur and Eileen

Arthur and Eileen

This narrative dissonance is one of the more disturbing and perfectly calibrated aspects of Pennies, as the film reveals itself as a series of paradoxes which highlight the brutality of the characters’ situation with a pronounced lack of sentimentality; fantasy and actuality, light and dark, fulfillment and desperation, imagination and substance. The device of tableaux is deliberately referential to specific American artists like Edward Hopper and Reginald Marsh, artists whose work examined social and spiritual displacement of characters in relation to their environments.

Dislocation and ambivalence course through the film as each successive narrative strand creates a greater separation between the characters’ musical imaginings and corporeal actuality; the validity of the musical number as a “true” demarcation of spatial existence for the characters grows stronger as the film progresses the need for escapism mounts, even as that realm of musical fantasy grows less logical and connected to the narrative proper. The end of the film is a rousing Busby Berkeley-style number in the grimy streets where Arthur has just been hauled away and executed for a murder he hasn’t committed; from the shadows Arthur and Eileen appear, reassuring the audience that they wouldn’t let them leave the theater on such a sad note and that life is wonderful. The joy and exhuberance in this glossy dénouement, coming immediately after the tragic execution of the central character, seem grotesque and nightmarishly disengaged from what has just happened to the characters. But all musicals must have happy endings, right?

Chicago (2002)

Chicago (2002)

Rob Marshall’s musical adaptation Chicago (2002) owes no small debt to Pennies in its use of this same device, as nearly all the film’s musical numbers are staged as interior fantasies of the film’s anti-heroine Roxie Hart. Chicago is a caustic and keen critique of a hypocritical society which spouts sanctimonious notions of puritanical morality while concurrently profiteering from the publics’ salacious preoccupation with sex and scandal. Although very effective as an extrapolation of classic musical theater structure and as an expression of moral ambivalence, Chicago‘s employment of the musical number as subconscious narrative device follows a much more linear dialectic than Pennies From Heaven. While the earlier film employs this same device as a means to implode the traditional relationship between musical sequence and narrative to devastatingly grim effect, Chicago bafflingly sidesteps its possibilities, employing its musical numbers simply as illustrations or indicators of the primary narrative. The musical scenes function not for the purpose of narrative deconstruction (which would have been completely in line with the nature of this story,) but seemingly to ease a 2002 audience into accepting the characters bursting into song—the notion of musical numbers in a dramatic film as justifiable if they are sequestered into an alternate, or hyper-reality for an audience no longer accustomed to traditional musical theater as a form of mass entertainment. The musical sequences in Chicago, while entertaining, are reduced to a tautological device no more threatening or illuminating than a conventional dream sequence or interior fantasy and which are compartmentalized into a rather jejune function in the narrative. This detracts from what is otherwise a good film musical and a comparison to Herbert Ross’s film only underscores the mordant resplendency of Pennies From Heaven; the 1981 film is truly ahead of its time in its narrative complexity and astringent exegesis of film genres.

Steppin' Out into Hell...

Steppin' Out into Hell...

Pennies From Heaven is a horror film, in which expectations of genre are cleanly subverted like a straight razor running through soft flesh. It’s a cruel narrative trope designed for disruption of expectations and displacement of narrative convention, where dreams and fantasies are eviscerated instead of bodies and disappointment and tragedy await after that big happy dance number. In that sense it’s just as painful, and horrifying to watch, as that other kind of scary movie.

***** ***** *****

Well, it’s time for pie.

Mock Apple Pie“, one of the standard bearers of “mock” or substitute foods, was not actually invented in the Thirties. It originated from American Pioneer days when soda crackers were used to make pies in times when apples were scarce. Nabisco introduced it as a Ritz Cracker recipe in 1935 and it was a huge hit. Since this post is all about delusions, escapism and sustaining our psyches with chicanery and lies, Mock Apple Pie seems like a perfect Depression-era complement.

Mock Apple Pie

1 3⁄4 cups flour, plus more as needed
1 tbsp. plus 2 cups sugar
1 tsp. fine salt
12 tbsp. plus 2 tbsp. unsalted butter, cubed
and chilled
2 tsp. cream of tartar
2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1 tbsp. lemon zest
1⁄2 tsp. ground cinnamon
2 cups coarsely broken Ritz, saltine,
or soda crackers (about 36 crackers)
1 egg, beaten

1. Combine flour, 1 tbsp. sugar, and salt in a food processor; pulse to combine. Add 12 tbsp. butter; pulse until pea-size pieces have formed. Drizzle in 3–4 tbsp. ice water; continue pulsing until dough just comes together. Turn dough onto a floured surface; knead briefly into a ball. Divide dough in half, form into 2 disks, and wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Chill for at least 1 hour or overnight.

2. Put remaining sugar, cream of tartar, and 1 3⁄4 cups water into a medium saucepan; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low; simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat; add lemon juice, lemon zest, and cinnamon. Let syrup cool to room temperature.

3. Heat oven to 400°. On a floured surface, roll 1 dough disk into a 12″ circle, transfer to a 9″ pie pan, fill with crackers, and pour syrup over top. Dot mixture with remaining butter. Roll out remaining dough into an 11″ circle and place on top of pie; trim dough, leaving a 1⁄2″ overhang. Fold edges up over rim; press to seal. Decorate edge of the pie dough with the tines of a fork. Cut 6 slits in the top of the pie, brush with the egg, and bake until crust is golden brown, about 35 minutes. Let pie cool completely before slicing.


A dozen peach, a dozen berry, a dozen pumpkin, a dozen cherry: Mildred Pierce and redemption through pie dough

•July 4, 2008 • Leave a Comment

As you might have noticed from the title of this blog and my preoccupation with pies, “Mildred Pierce” is one my favorite films. Most famous as the film that got Joan Crawford her one and only Academy Award, it’s also one of the most durable and pitch-perfect films from the Forties, an era which offers no short supply of near-perfect Hollywood studio product. “Mildred” works on so many levels and is endlessly watchable, due to several weapons in its arsenal: a lean and lethal script by Ranald MacDougall and uncredited co-writers William Faulker and Catherine Turney which results in one of the quotable films ever, lines read by a pitch-perfect cast of thoroughbred actors led by Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Ann Blyth and the divine Eve Arden, and direction by Warner Bros. auteur Michael Curtiz three years after he’d made “Casablanca”. The film’s merits are obvious to any discerning film lover and I won’t waste anyone’s time with a recap of why it’s a classic. The book and novel are also a (sort-of) tribute and time-capsule view of my current home of Glendale, California.

As an avid pie maker, “Mildred Pierce” strikes me as an essential cinematic essay on pies (or pie-making if you will) as an allegory for the substance of its central character. A housewife who is abandoned by her husband, Mildred finds that her chief occupation in life leaves her unprepared for the job market, except for her one sale-able skill which is making pies and cakes for the neighbors. After the prologue of a character’s murder and the ensuing police investigation/interrogation, the film flashes back a few years to Mildred in the kitchen, prepping a cake for a neighbor’s child. Even as her marriage falls apart during a heated exchange with her philandering husband she never stops measuring flour, milk and the assorted components of the pastry which signifies much more than a few extra dollars of spending money; unable to get a decent living for her daughters and herself from her failure of a husband, Mildred bakes pies and cakes to earn the fancy dresses and dance lessons and music lessons for her two daughters who, she has determined, will lead a better life than she. Pie baking isn’t just a skill or hobby, it begins as Mildred’s only method of earning her own way, and indicates how few avenues of economic survival are open to her when her husband abandons her and the children. Pie making is Mildred’s salvation, the only place where her methodical, determined nature results in an evenhanded reward for her efforts. Her husband and children might let her down, and Mildred begins the story as a seriously freaked out woman unsure of where the money for the house payments and her daughter Veda’s piano lessons will come from, but the pies won’t ever let her down.

Wages for working women in the 1930s were extremely low: sewing and production of toys and other goods from home yielded only $5 per week. Although it was easier for women to find work during the Depression than men, there was still high unemployment among women. Two million women who had had jobs before the Depression, or were seeking jobs because of the Depression, were unemployed in 1931. By 1933, that number had doubled. For the 20% to 50% of unemployed women who were solely responsible for supporting their families, unemployment was life threatening. – from Holding Their Own: American Women in the 1930s by Susan Ware

Mildred Pierce, Lottie and the pies

Mildred Pierce, Lottie and the pies

Despite its trappings as a “woman’s picture” of the time, “Mildred Pierce” serves up a tough, crackling story of amorality, betrayal, and misbegotten love that goes trainwreck-bad for nearly all its participants. James M. Cain’s original novel offered an even grimmer picture of how limited the options were for women on their own in the early Thirties; much of the novel is a unsentimental listing of the hardscrabble details of Mildred Pierce sweating out the few jobs she can find and barely making a living, exhausting her body and spirit in the process, all the while frying chicken, assembling sandwiches in greasy spoons, and yes, baking pies. In the film, Mildred goes from scared naïf in the working world who doesn’t understand that you can’t say “without gravy” (you have to say “hold”) to one of the restaurant’s “best waitresses” in a short span of three months. The novel isn’t so generous to Mildred, as she’s barely competent as a waitress and it’s a long, hard, calloused-spotted road to eeking out a living. In Cain’s novel, the restaurant barely lets her stay on after she demonstrates little talent or temperament for waitressing, but it’s Mildred’s gifts as pie-maker which offer a last-ditch chance at survival and eventual success at the restaurant business. Unfortunately Mildred conflates earning a living and moving ahead in the world with pleasing her ungrateful wretch of a daughter who shows only contempt for her working-class mother.

Mildred and Veda

Mildred and Veda

Pies in this context represent the possibility of victory in an unsympathetic universe, even though Mildred is ultimately doomed in a cycle of unrequited love (if you want to look at “Mildred”‘s film-noir trappings then Veda Pierce is up there with the best femmes fatales, and this is even more striking because it’s in a narrative of mother-love which in certain respects is way kinkier).

Mildred at work

Mildred at work

My own experience with pies had a rough start. As pastries go, they aren’t necessarily the easiest thing to make; my first effort at making a pie at the age of thirteen was a sad, brittle excuse of an apple pie that had a tough, dry crust which as I recall was from the “Better Homes and Gardens” book and which failed at providing enough dough to cover a decent-sized double crust pie. Pretty much everything went wrong with that first pie—I overworked the dough, the filling was bland and the baking time was excessive (overbrowning the pie doesn’t save a lousy dough or so I learned). I’ve had more luck in recent years, as my boyfriend and I have done a minimum of research and experimentation with pie crust, as well as finding a good resource in the book Pie by Ken Haedrich which my boyfriend’s brother amusing refers to as the “Pie-ble”. Most of our efforts have been aimed at making fruit pies, but there is a pretty good rendition of a peanut pie in the Pie-ble. In that spirit, here’s a pretty good recipe for peanut pie, which is basically a peanutty spin on pecan pie (this is actually “Grandma Gert”‘s recipe which is similar to Ken Haedrich’s):

Peanut Pie

1 cup sugar
3/4 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup butter, melted
3 eggs
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups dry roasted peanuts
1 9-inch unbaked pastry shell

Combine sugar, corn syrup, melted butter, eggs and vanilla in large mixing bowl. Beat with mixer until thoroughly blended. Stir in dry roasted peanuts. Turn into unbaked pastry shell. Bake at 375 degrees for 45 minutes. Great warm with some whipped cream

There’s really nothing like a perfect slice of pie on a plate. As Veda Pierce would say, “that would be dreadfully recherché, n’est-ce pas?”

Indeed. Continue reading ‘A dozen peach, a dozen berry, a dozen pumpkin, a dozen cherry: Mildred Pierce and redemption through pie dough’

The State of Gay Cinema

•July 2, 2008 • Leave a Comment

From part of a discussion I’d had on Facebook, with some edits and linked examples:

Current gay cinema presents a thorny issue in terms of value in representation and artistic validity. I think it goes straight to the issue of artistic merit and whether not mere representation is enough to sustain gay audiences. There was a time when films like “Victim” or “The Gay Deceivers” were necessary because it was such a novelty to even see substantive gay characters in any mainstream movie, never mind a “positive” portrayal. I’m sure these films served a purpose as a mirror to the lives of some gay people and ameliorated the sense of invisibility felt by those audiences; but the quality of these films was, with few exceptions, execrable. Truthfully, much as I admire the filmmakers for their enterprise and daring, I’d rather poke my eyes out than sit through 1979’s “Making Love” again (much as I love Sabrina Dunc— uhh, Kate Jackson).

There was some hope in the ’80s and early ’90s when gay film festivals came into prominence and queer-identified filmmakers found venues for their work; much of that work was correlative to a sense of urgency and the air of political activism motivated gay artists to bring their stories to eager audiences. That Out-Loud-and-Proud bravado was invigorating and audiences could mostly overlook the fact that artistically the films were uneven and mired in a repetitive sense of identity politics (some great exceptions were filmmakers like Derek Jarman and Todd Haynes, visionaries who extended their artistic empowerment to exploring the boundaries of the forms themselves. Haynes continues to do this and it’s notable that his films are not exclusively homo-centric in their content, but absolutely queer in their sensibility and artistic bent).

In that sense, one hopes that gay filmmakers and playwrights (and by extension their audiences) have evolved from the era of knee-jerk identity politics and the fact of representation for it own sake. Sadly, I think that all that’s been replaced by something even worse—gay media has been afflicted in the interim by its own set of clichés as the market for gay films, tv shows and plays has been identified and commodified. The programming listings of gay film festivals is for the most part a dismal collection of soft-core muscle-bound campfests, repetitive coming-out stories, and the good old “gay circle of friends” ninety-minute sitcom usually sold as this year’s definitive comedy about the “gay experience” (“…in the tradition of “The Broken Hearts Club” comes a hilarious new comedy…”). I have absolutely nothing against muscle men, hustlers, coming-out stories or gay circles of friends; it’s just that gay entertainment seems strangely frozen in a loop of the same stories, pretty images of beautiful men, and tired campy humor that really hasn’t seemed fresh since “The Boys in the Band” back in 1968. What disturbs me is the artistic complacency and ideological vacuum which seems to have afflicted gay cinema and theater in the last twenty years; it seems that as long as filmmakers and playwrights cover certain themes, hit certain socially-relevant points, show just enough skin, and don’t challenge the audience’s gay-ghetto comfort zones, that their works pass for what’s good for gay audiences (and said audiences are perfectly willing to buy it).

That said, there’s always a place for fluff and mass entertainment and gay audiences should get as much nudity and campy humor as they want; but to be honest, I don’t see a lot of genuine artistic innovation happening in modern gay media, and as much as 1968’s “The Boys in the Band” gets lambasted for being a regressive relic of an un-liberated era, I’ve yet to see writing as trenchant, moving and eloquent in recent gay films and theater shows as in Matt Crowley’s forty-year-old play.

In an ideal world, gay audiences would demand the same quality of writing and filmmaking from the films they see at gay film festivals as in any Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese film; in reality gay audiences seem to accept almost anything of middling or lesser quality as long as two people of the same sex kiss, certain things are spoken and certain body parts are shown. Sorry if this sounds harsh, but how else does one explain “Noah’s Arc”, “Dante’s Cove” or the cinematic oeuvre of David deCoteau?

In mainstream film and television, the message alone is irrelevant to how the words are presented and packaged; certain artistic standards must be met or the work is usually dismissed by critics and/or audiences. The question of representation is mostly irrelevant; it’s either good or it’s not. Certainly, in the larger world, a lot of junk is produced, but a number of films of extraordinary merit and innovation also get made. Gay media and its target audience bypass any such filter, providing a hermetic, Through-the-Looking-Glass world where some genuinely awful and banal things are labeled as safe to consume because something shows two men kissing and enough “YOU GO GIRL!!!”‘s are sprinkled throughout the script. Gay and lesbian people experience extraordinary things and should occasionally create extraordinary cinema. What we’ve gotten these last twenty years can’t, and shouldn’t, be good enough.