Art Writing #4


It was one of those evenings. One of those nights you just have to sit back in the shadows and the dim glow of reconstituted pixels of silvered film. From the 20th Century Fox fanfare to the swell of music gliding across the opening credit cards’ fanciful script, you indulge and anticipate. The words introduce characters from a bygone time scrawled across the gilt framed portrait of Laura. “Otto Preminger” burns through the screen as the last notes fade to an unresolved hum. A low hum. A hum that underlies the voiceover. “I shall never forget the weekend Laura died. A silver sun burned through the sky like a huge magnifying glass. It was the hottest Sunday in my recollection. I felt as if I were the only human being left in New York,” Clifton Webb’s dry and affected vowels pan over the assorted objects of wealth. 1944, “New York.” A New York recognizable only in the brief descriptions this columnist so coyly intimates in the realm of narration. Everything else looks Hollywood.

The detective appears.

You knew the detective would appear thanks to David Raksin woodwinds and low brass.

We follow him to the clock. The pendulum clicks.

The voice appears on the screen before the man. We walk in with the detective.

Waldo Lydecker types in the tub. “It’s lavish but I call it home.”

Roger Ebert’s phrase “low motives and high style” seeps into the black and silver shadows. Were Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, and Clifton Webb seduced? Behind office doors, Otto Preminger and Darryl Zanuck fought over casting and dailies. Whole scenes were cut for Walter Winchell. Preminger was a friend of Trumbo– before Trumbo was Bryan Cranston nominated and naked in a tub on screen at the Oscars. Tub typing Clifton Webb’s columnist was supposedly Algonquin Round Tabler Alexander Woollcott, though. …Still. Naked.

Sex is so loudly unspoken in the movies. The grossly amplified tacit truth of most decisions. A wise professor asking about a colleague’s seminar said that the inside of another person’s classroom is as unknown as sex or money. We know it exists, but its workings sit beneath surfaces, undisclosed. Boyd McDonald brings it palpably to the surface of jockey shorts; he bares its latent potency; he pantses the movies. How to talk about sex or art? Hollywood has never been less than contradictory; mixed media aggregate mixed messages. In the great liberated, post-sexual-revolutionary, cosmopolitan culture of the internet age, the portrayal of sex nonplusses. The Academy of Motion Pictures nominated a song from Fifty Shades of Gray, “Earned It” by The Weeknd, in the same category as The Hunting Ground’s “Til It Happens to You,” by Diane Warren and Lady Gaga. Sex mongering sex mockery. (shhhhhhh!)

I remember feeling embarrassed that I found Jeff Goldblum sexy in Jurassic Park.

I remember being in love with Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday.

I always liked a detective, and an Irish detective who calls women “dames” and “broads” surely casts shadows on aesthetes with dandy canes. Someone claims “I never bother with details,” yet Laura drips with them. Unexplained distractions, overwrought maids (the part I’d be cast in), underlit cops. “Murder is my favorite crime,” the columnist remarks, as the detective plays the baseball balance game. He appears to be playing on a smartphone.


Words build the suspense, but never too perfectly. “She didn’t come…Then again Friday she didn’t come…I felt betrayed.” Betrayals and chianti fill the screen as the restaurant clears out behind the detective and columnist. Asides elaborate traits — “I can afford a blemish on my character, but not on my suit.” Costume plays its part. The cane. Hats. Everything was better when men wore hats. The set is perhaps more elaborately dressed. ‘Black tawny’ booze poured beside a white ruffly, eyelet trimmed lamp that comes 35 minutes in makes you wonder at the fine lady. Laura. Who works her way to success in advertising. She begins from the moment the writer writes her. The columnist invokes her in his introduction; he makes her with his connections. She keeps a maid who distrusts cops and would die for her. In true noir form, the object “in which the thoughts of men draw nearer together than is their wont” is a woman. Unoriginality can be great.

When Webb appears at the crime scene 38 minutes into the film, he slyly comments on Vincent Price’s alibi, “My excuse is equally feeble.” Feeble excuses flutter about like Laura’s electric fixtures’ frills. “Oh yes. Saturday I took a walk. A long walk in the woods.” “Dames are always pulling a switch on you.” Broken radios at her country house in Norwalk — she came in on the 7:26 train, though I can hardly picture Laura with her chaperoned hairdressing sauntering off the MetroNorth or stuck in the Norwalk traffic on the Merritt Parkway. 1944. The year my grandmother came through New York, Florida to Boston with my infant aunt. The New Year’s Day she watched a liner issue from the Hudson river and off to Germany carrying my grandfather, the doctor who wanted to be a pilot. He had no silver shin, like Laura’s detective.

And the theme drifts in with strings and horns. Laura’s theme.

The detective holds the gun — not the right gun, though this gun too has been recently shot. He doesn’t look at his suspect, he just fiddles with framed silhouette cameos on the wall. There’s also the matter of Gene Tierney’s preposterously casual costume at the climax. Into her noir, she steps in a loose collared peasant top that predicts 70s fashion. How do so many wrong details reach equilibrium? Are the bodies most sensuous? Or the props? Or sitting in the dark?

As the curtains crash, a broken clock in melodramatic resonance stops time.

And the credits roll….

A Catalog of the ones I didn’t wind up watching…

Almost Famous 2000

starring Kate Hudson, Patrick Fugit, Billy Crudup

First seen in the theater. I think we went to Natick. We were working at Talbots at the mall. It was my friend Connie’s idea.

Bridget Jones’s Diary 2001

starring Renee Zellwegger, Hugh Grant, and Colin Firth

released just a month before my 18th birthday, this movie represents most of my ideas about comedy and single life. I watched it obsessively during my sophomore year of college.

The Women 1939

starring Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell

the source of half of the inside jokes of my junior year of college

The Court Jester 1955

starring Danny Kaye, Glynis Johns, Basil Rathbone, Angela Lansbury

Glynis Johns was the most beautiful and clever outlaw. I wanted her peasant disguise.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks 1971

starring Angela Lansbury

If only I could do a correspondence course for witchcraft.

The Witches of Eastwick 1987

starring Cher, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer and Jack Nicholson

We owned the VHS. First R-rated movie I knew I was seeing.

Labyrinth 1986

starring David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly

I got the VHS in my Easter basket when I was maybe 6

Later, in middle school, my friends insisted we watch it repeatedly. The were fixated on David Bowie’s bulge in Labyrinth (the movie terrified me and I thought Jennifer Connelly was such a ninny).

A Room with A View 1985

Starring Helena Bonham Carter

I remember begrudging my best friend the insistence that we watch and then fast forward A Room With a View to the naked swimming scene. Rupert Graves before Sherlock was the most dashing Freddy, though she seemed more compelled by the mildly grotesque Mr. Beebe. (If we are going to watch it, let me watch it. If you just want to see naked men, isn’t there a better way?).

And The Oscar Goes To… (2014)

I sampled this documentary to get my mind around options and what Academy of motion pictures I wanted to endorse.

A Wedding for Bella 2001 (on the verge of too new)

Starring Scott Baio

Mysteriously also titled Bread, My Sweet.

discovered in the falsely full shelves of Amazon Prime

an attempt to find an unknown film along the lines of something you might happen upon on tv.

In the few minutes I watched it proved both too terrible (oh! the melodramatic close-ups of hands kneading bread!) and insufficiently terrible (the dialogue was bearable and the tone was neither tacky nor overly serious enough). A paltry attempt to replicate the particularity of watching television programming, I opted to find a movie from Amazon not in the typical recommendations, but further down, further down further down. The made for TV movie. The filler movies. The projects that someone sent around on screeners to try for better distribution.

Pride and Prejudice Mini Series 1995

Starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth

I properly watched the first segment of this again and I still know just about every line. My poor nerves wished so to indulge in the English landscapes and the notion I had of these women in love and in empire waists.

A Stolen Life 1946

Starring Bette Davis

I really wanted to watch this because Bette Davis plays twins! Unfortunately the free stream I found was not in good shape and I couldn’t bear image distortions.

A Little Princess 1939

Starring Shirley Temple

How is this in color? The colorized version distresses my memory. Class and imperialism felt too close to the surface for me to keep going.

Sherlock Jr 1924

starring Buster Keaton

What perfect composure and commentary. How could such a straight face, such juxtaposition of title cards, such forgotten technologies and evidence of human follies still feel so immediate.

And then there was Laura.