Showing posts with label Marlene Dietrich. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Marlene Dietrich. Show all posts

15 March 2018

Babylon, Babylon

by Eve Fisher

Baker Banana.jpg
Baker - 1926
My husband and I have been watching Babylon Berlin on Netflix.   It's a guilty pleasure, not because of the sex, which is actually pretty unappealing.  (NOTE to future producers to broaden your audience:  most women aren't turned on by naked women being taken by big fat slugs in kinky and/or violent ways, i.e., raped or whored. Just a thought.)

No, my real problem is that it's so historically inaccurate. (Yeah, I think that way.)  For example, the video below (SPOILER ALERT - there is some nearly nudity).  My problem isn't with the girls in bananas - that's straight up Josephine Baker - but the people on the dance floor in the video, who are basically freaking line dancing.  I mean, it is a 1920's Berlin nightclub, full of smoke, alcohol, and opium, so there wouldn't be much coordinated syncopation going on, if you know what I mean.



Marlene Dietrich in her breakthrough role
The Blue Angel, 1930
Plus, like Cabaret, there's the constant effort to ram home (in more ways than one) how decadent 1920s Berlin was, but using modern Hollywood ideas of what kinky / sexy is.  Take a look at Marlene Dietrich:  that's her breakthrough role, as Lola in The Blue Angel.  That was the hottest, sexiest, kinkiest thing that had ever been seen on film in 1930's Berlin.  Well, let me assure you that, in Babylon Berlin everyone has been made up, eyebrowed up, thinned down, shampooed and conditioned, and generally made into someone entirely different than what was cooking in the Berlin stews of the 1920s.  They did the same thing in Cabaret.  Only in Cabaret, everyone's pretty clean cut - even Sally Bowles.

Liza Minelli doing Dietrich in Cabaret
Actually, you can tell that Cabaret's an American movie because it uses "divine decadence" to promote straight up family values.  Sally Bowles has Daddy issues, will do anything for money and/or love and/or attention, and is sleeping all over the place (I think it's the first movie where the word "syphilis" is used in a joke), even though she's "as fatale as an after-dinner mint".  But after she has an abortion, well, it's pretty obvious that Sally's going to end up on the skids, the streets, and the morgue.  In the same way, the menage-á-trois weekend with Sally, Brian and Max, is there to confirm how futilely, half-assedly decadent the German nobility was.  That's why, when the blue-eyed blond-haired youth starts singing "Tomorrow Belongs To Me", he seems like a refreshing change to the Cabaret Berlin Babylon.  And even after the camera has pulled back and shown the Nazi uniforms and swastikas - I'm not entirely sure that the director grasped that some people might still root for them.  Pauline Kael noticed in her review at the time that "Bob Fosse, the choreographer-director, keeps the period—Berlin, 1931—at a cool distance. We see the decadence as garish and sleazy." (Wikipedia).  In other words, we're observers, safely at a distance, and at a distance, the Nazis can look good:  At least they'll clean the place up.

But back to Babylon Berlin, which does not have THAT problem, but instead suffers from massive PCS, a/k/a Plot Complexity Syndrome:  No one is ever who or what they seem, to the point where you can't help but wonder where they're buying all those disguises, and what phone booth are they using to put them on.  And why no one ever recognizes someone's long-lost whatever by their freaking voice, which wouldn't change, even if everything else has had plastic surgery...  And of course, every twist has another twist that twists back on itself and then corkscrews.  And it would take a silver bullet from the hand of Dracula himself to kill some people off.  Shooting them, pushing them off tall buildings, beating them to a pulp - it just makes them mad.

The problem with PCS, in movies or in novels, is that the excessive plot takes up all space for actual characters.  Yes, we're given heroes and heroines, but they don't have time to actually, think about anything, or have more than four basic emotions, fear, lust, anger, and...  well, maybe just the three.  They're too busy:  there's sex, there's violence, there's the few moments actually at work, there's more sex, there's drugs, and they're always running from or to or after somebody or something.  That's another reason I call Babylon Berlin a guilty pleasure:  there's no there there, except for the plot, and that'll just give you a headache.  Stick with the visuals, kid, it's a lot more fun.


Pasqualino Settebellezze 1975 film poster.jpgThat cannot be said about my favorite of all "babylon" type movies:  Lina Wertmüller's 1975 Seven Beauties.

Seven Beauties is what they call a picaresque movie.  Episodic, and all revolving around our hero Pasqualino Frafuso a/k/a Settebellezze, i.e., "Seven Beauties".  He's called that because he has seven very unattractive, unmarriageable sisters, and his role as the man is to keep them all virtuous until marriage.  Meanwhile, of course, Pasqualino's doing every woman he can get his hands on.  Giancarlo Giannini is brilliant in the role:  Pasqualino is a self-obsessed dandy, a wanna-be Mafioso, and a fool - God, what a fool! - and we can't take our eyes off of him.

Here's the basic plot:  Pasqualino kills a pimp who's whored out his oldest sister.  That lands him in jail; he pleads insanity. That lands him in the insane asylum; he volunteers to fight in WW2. And that lands him in hell. He ends up in a German concentration camp, and how our hero survives that has to be seen to be believed.

How everyone who survives has to be seen to be believed.   (To the right is the clip shown at the Oscars.  While I couldn't find it with subtitles, I'm not sure that it needs it.)

Along the line, Seven Beauties expresses ideas about Italian manhood, womanhood, life, survival, and the long-standing difference... dislike...  sometimes war, between Northern and Southern Europe.  This shows up in everything European, literature, art, habits, war.  The Southern view of Northern Europeans is that they live so much in their minds and their jobs that they've lost all sense of nature, of humanity.  As Pedro, an anarchist in the concentration camp says:  
Pedro: But soon, very soon, a new man, a new man will be born. He’ll have to be civilized, not this beast who’s been endowed with intelligence and obliterated the harmony in the world and brought about total destruction just by disturbing nature's equilibrium. A new man… able to rediscover the harmony that’s within.
Pasqualino: You mean, put things in order?
Pedro: Order? No, no, the orderly ones are the Germans. No, a new man in disorder is our only hope. A new man… in disorder.
Meanwhile, Northern Europeans look down on Southern Europeans as a lazy group of hedonists who work only enough to get in a harvest and then spend the rest of their time eating, drinking, and screwing.  They're poor, and it's their own damn fault, they're like rats or sheep or...  Why do you think the Germans enjoyed putting the economic screws to the Greeks so much?  They deserved it.

Look, the real war between the North and the South is, at base, the war between the rich and the poor.  And the poor win because they will do anything to stay alive.  The Commandant of the concentration camp in Seven Beauties says to Pasqualino, "You disgust me. Your thirst for life disgusts me. You have no ideals. You have found the strength for an erection, that’s why you'll survive. All our dreams for a master race—unattainable.”  

Seven Beauties has all of the decadence, sex, and violence that anyone could want - plus a hell of a lot of humor that pushes the boundaries of everything and everyone.  But it also has a thirst for life - a sheer enjoyment of life - that no other "babylon" movie I've ever seen has.  

Seven Beauties, dedicated to:



The ones who don't enjoy themselves even when they laugh. Oh yeah.
The ones who worship the corporate image not knowing that they work for someone else. Oh yeah.
The ones who should have been shot in the cradle. Pow! Oh yeah.
The ones who say, "Follow me to success, but kill me if I fail," so to speak. Oh yeah.
The ones who say, "We Italians are the greatest he-men on earth." Oh yeah.
The ones who vote for the right because they're fed up with strikes. Oh yeah.
The ones who vote blank ballot in order not to get dirty. Oh yeah.
The ones who never get involved with politics.  Oh, yeah.
The ones who....  

Watch the rest of the opening sequence on the right and find out who the others are.

BTW - Lina Wertmüller became the first woman in history nominated for Best Director for Seven Beauties (and it didn't happen again until 1993, with Jane Campion's The Piano) and Giancarlo Gianinni was nominated for Best Actor for playing Pasqualino.
John Avildsen won that year for Rocky.  Lina was robbed.



06 March 2018

Book ’Em, Paulie

by Paul D. Marks

A weird thing happened the other day. It’s not a unique thing. It’s not something I’ve never done before—in fact I’ve done it many times. But quite honestly I don’t do it as often as I used to (get your minds out of the gutter here).

I went to a bookstore. And it was almost a revelatory experience.

Now, I have to admit it wasn’t a quirky little independent bookstore. It was a Barnes and Noble. And it was a wonderful experience. The feel of the books. The ability to read the jacket flaps. To see books on display that I might not come across online. And while checking out the clerk had some interesting things to say about one of the books I was buying, A.J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window.

One of my favorite pastimes is meandering through bookstores. And I'm not a snob about it. I like both the big chain stores and the small independents. Each has strengths and weaknesses. The independents often carry a more eclectic stock or are sometimes dedicated to a single genre, such as mysteries. Their staffs are usually more knowledgeable and well read. The big box stores often have more variety and selection.

L to R: me, Naomi Hirahara, Darrell James and Rochelle Staab
 at The Mystery Bookstore in Westwood
But either way, I look at going to bookstores as a social experience. Even if I say no more than "Hello" and "Thank you" to the clerk checking me out, I have a social experience with hundreds of authors and books. And that “hello” is more than I get when shopping online.

Also, on the social level I’ve met women I ended up dating at bookstores (before I was married, of course!) and have seen authors I like do signings and readings. Check out a James Ellroy event some time if you want to see insanity in motion. And I've done signings and speaking gigs at bookstores myself.

I like bookstores that stay open late. That I can run to when an urge for something in particular strikes at an odd hour—and I keep pretty odd hours. It was a place to go. A destination. Before moving out of the city proper (Los Angeles) to a more rural area, I would often hop in the car at all hours to go find a book to satisfy my addiction. But from here, everything is a trek.

Me doing a reading at Book Soup in West Hollywood
But that's getting harder and harder to do, even in the city as there are less bookstores. And yes, I also patronize Amazon, so in that sense I’m part of the problem. But I also still patronize brick and mortar bookstores when I can. And there is nothing like browsing through one, discovering new books and authors. And that’s what it’s all about: Discovery, with a capital D. Whenever I see a bookstore, I want to go in. Whenever I go in, I buy at least one or two things, hoping to help keep the stores afloat and also just cause I like books. And if you saw our house you’d know what I’m talking about. Books everywhere, including on shelves in the garage.

A scene from the movie Harry and Tonto
 where you can see Pickwick Books on Hollywood Blvd in the background
Before my mom got sick for many years, we would often go to lunch and then to a bookstore together. We’d peruse the aisles, not always the same aisles, and both of us would leave with armloads of books. That’s one of my fondest memories of her.

In the olden days, Los Angeles had a ton of bookstores. Specialty stores and general bookstores. Westwood alone (in West Los Angeles, between Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, home of UCLA and the Bruins for you non-Angelinos) had a ton of bookstores. It was so much fun just walking the streets of that little neighborhood and hitting all of them, and maybe getting something to eat and going to a movie as well.

Westwood also had the Mystery Bookstore, which began life as the Mysterious Bookshop in West Hollywood, the West Coast branch of Otto Penzler’s famous Mysterious Bookshop in New York. Both places were treasures in more ways than one and I’m truly sorry that they are no more. Luckily, while in NYC last April I got to visit the original Mysterious Bookshop and it was an amazing amalgam of mystery books. I can’t wait to go back.

Unfortunately, all those Westwood bookstores are gone now.

Other specialty stores that are still with us include, Larry Edmunds for film and TV books and Samuel French that specializes in theatre books.
Pickwick Books in Hollywood 

Back in the day, on Hollywood Boulevard near Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and definitely worth the trip, was Pickwick Books, three stories of book lovers’ delights. And way back in the day, Fitzgerald, Chandler, Faulkner, Bogart, Marlene Dietrich and many other celebs would haunt this place. Though I’m sure F. Scott wished he hadn’t one time. He went into the store and asked if they had The Great Gatsby by one F. Scott Fitzgerald. The clerk told him, “We don’t stock the work of dead authors on this floor. You’ll have to try upstairs [where used books, bargains and the like were kept].” The clerk later said, “I didn’t even recognize him and it’s been making me sick ever since. Especially since he died shortly after that. Another customer who knew him told me my not recognizing him and thinking he was dead had a catastrophic effect on him.”

There were also used book stores (and still are). Down in Long Beach was Acres of Books, a mere 12,000-square-feet. I went there several times but it was a bit of a drive. Closer to home and one of my faves was Book City on Hollywood Boulevard. Partly because of the books and partly because they had one of my favorite pix of the Beatles outside (see pic). They would order hard to find books for me and always came through. And in West Hollywood was the very independent George Sand Books. A small store that held a lot of readings. And even as I put the polish on this piece another one bites the dust: http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-caravan-last-chapter-20180301-htmlstory.html 

Book City in Hollywood
Even most of the mall bookstores are gone. Dalton’s and Walden. And Crown Books. It was always good when I had to go to a mall for one reason or another to be able to duck into a bookstore and pick up something.

There’s still bookstores, of course, though maybe not as many. But hopefully things will shake out and people will want the human and tactile experience of going to bookstores.

Small World Books in Venice Beach
I was thinking about including a list of now-gone bookstores, but for many of you, especially outside of LA it wouldn’t really mean anything. Suffice to say there’s a ton of them. But there’s also a bunch (both new and used bookstores) still around, so if you’re in LA you might want to check them out. But remember L.A. is very spread out and even though some places might seem close to one another they might not be. And if I’ve left any off this list, I’m sorry, it’s not intentional:

$10 or Less Bookstore – Tampa Ave., Northridge
Angel City Books and Records – Pier Avenue, Santa Monica
Barnes and Noble – various locations
Book Soup – Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood
BookMonster – Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica
Books on the Boulevard – Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks
Bookstar – Ventura Blvd, Studio City (owned by B&N)
Chevalier Books – Larchmont Avenue, Hancock Park/Los Angeles
Eso Won Books – Degnan Avenue, Leimert Park (Los Angeles)
Gatsby Books – Spring Street, Long Beach
Iliad Bookshop, The – Lankershim Boulevard, North Hollywood (near Universal Studios)
Larry Edmund’s – Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood
Last Bookstore, The – Spring Street, downtown L.A.
Mysterious Galaxy – Balboa Avenue, San Diego
Mystery Ink Bookstore – Warner Ave., Huntington Beach
Mystery Pier Books – Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood
Open Book, The – Soledad Canyon, Canyon Country/Santa Clarita (Los Angeles County)
Pop-Hop Bookstore, The – York Boulevard, Highland Park (Los Angeles)
Samuel French – Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood
Skylight Books – Vermont Avenue, Los Feliz (near Hollywood)
Small World Books – Ocean Front Walk/the Venice Boardwalk, Venice Beach
Vroman’s – Colorado Blvd., Pasadena

So, tell us about your city’s bookstores (now and then) and your favorites.

***

And now for the usual BSP:

I’m happy to say that my story “There’s An Alligator in My Purse” has been selected for the 2018 Bouchercon anthology, Sunny Places, Shady People, edited by Greg Herren. I’m pleased to be included with fellow SleuthSayers Barb Goffman and John Floyd.


Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website www.PaulDMarks.com