Monday, December 22, 2008

Happy holidays!

Maybe Santa will bring me a new camera, because a couple weeks ago mine started taking pictures like this. I have no idea how it happened, but I love it. In the meantime, I give you readers this fascinating photo of a ranger station at Henninger Flats in the San Gabriels, taken a couple weeks ago when the sun was so bright I didn't realize how the photos were coming out until I got back to the car.

Have a wonderful holiday, everyone.

Kiss me good night, Miss Giddens!

And finally, to ring in the holiday season, I finally got around to watching "The Innocents" with Deborah Kerr. It's been on my list for years, since I read "The Turn of the Screw" in college. All I remember about that class (whichever class it was) was having to read five different essays that analyzed the story from five different points of view -- one saying the governess is a basket case, one saying the ghosts she sees are real, one talking about the children and their Freudian projections, and I don't remember what-all else. They were all pretty convincing and I came away with a mild headache and a deep-seated confusion about the story.

So it was really impressive to me that the movie upholds the same ambiguity. You're seeing it all in front of you, but you really can't tell what's going on. Miss Giddens (Kerr) is a fetching young governess who lands her first job ever after a flirty conversation with her cute employer. He explains, though, that she'll never see him -- he lives in London, and she'll be looking after his two young wards at his country estate. Still, she claims to love children, and she really seems to enjoy her work. But there's something weird about the children....

There is of course nothing creepier than creepy children, and the most awesome thing about these kids is that you never know if they're malevolent or not, but they're still utterly creepy. Young Flora prances around singing "O Willow Waly" (which turns out to be a song about mourning a dead lover) and slightly older Miles is just a little... precocious. Are they possessed? Are they just misguided? Is Miss Giddens really seeing ghosts through the windows? Even the ending leaves you wondering. But no matter what you think is going on, you have to enjoy the ride as Miss Giddens slowly loses it. When the ghost brushes past her in the schoolroom, oh my God, the hairs on my neck stood up.

I was also excited about this movie because it inspired Kate Bush's classic song "The Infant Kiss," which itself is pretty ambiguous: "There's a man behind those eyes... Oh, how he frightens me." Is it a love song or a song of terror? The movie walks the same line.

Brr. Let's take our niece and nephew's Christmas presents back to the store!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Secret stigma, reaping wheel

Next up in my festive holiday trifecta: the 1962 classic "Carnival of Souls." Wow! I don't think I've ever identified with a horror heroine quite so much. After a serious car accident, Mary (Candace Hilligoss, who only made one other movie, but it was called "Curse of the Living Corpse"!) packs up and moves to Utah for a new job as church organist. But she's haunted by creepy apparitions and horrific nightmares. She has episodes where she seems to become invisible to people around her - a saleslady looks right through her, sound seems to come from under water. And everywhere she goes, she sees the same smiling white-faced man, staring back at her out of mirrors, reflected in her car window, nearly bumping into her nose at the water fountain.

This all makes Mary a bit jumpy, and it doesn't help that she's already kind of an oddball for 1962. A healthy, intelligent young woman who doesn't want friends, isn't interested in the advances of the loutish tenant across the hall in her boarding house, plays professionally on a church organ but lacks religious conviction... she doesn't seem to fit in anywhere. Her landlady, her boss at the church and her doctor are all slightly baffled by her. You've already got the plot twist figured out, ten minutes into the movie, but it's fascinating to watch: on so many levels, Mary doesn't belong here. She belongs somewhere else.

It's creepy as hell to watch Mary's destiny close in on her. Gorgeous, too. Why aren't more horror movies set in Utah? The black and white cinematography makes the most of the sweeping, open landscape, especially around the vacant lakeside pavilion that irresistibly draws Mary: white skies against dark water. This would be great to see on a big screen. The soundtrack, almost entirely organ music, is gorgeous too.

As a fairly spacey person myself, with an often-tenuous grip on reality ("Where are my glasses? What's her name again? Wait, what year is this?"), I could powerfully identify with Mary's terror as her world starts to blur and something else starts to come in. It's a universal fear, this fear of losing one's grip altogether. James Thurber puts it this way in his introduction to "My Life and Hard Times":

It is unfortunate, however, that even a well-ordered life can not lead anybody safely around the inevitable doom that waits in the skies. As F. Hopkinson Smith long ago pointed out, the claw of the sea-puss gets us all in the end.

Brr. Let's turn on some more lights and have some eggnog!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

RIP, Bettie

She took such obvious joy in her body, it still sparkles across all of the years that have passed. Her life was quite troubled for many years. I hope she's found some peace. Good night, Bettie.

LAT obit

NYT obit (for "Ms. Page," don't you love it?)

There's a nice quote in the LAT's obit from artist Olivia de Berardinis:

It took me years to understand what I was looking at in the old photographs of her. Now I get it. There was a passion play unfolding in her mind. What some see as a bad girl image was in fact a certain sensual freedom and play-acting -- it was part of the fun of being a woman.

And that's exactly the key to her charm. You never get the sense, in her photos, that anyone but her is in charge -- she never comes across as exploited, but as someone who's playing a game, wielding her sexuality because it's making her some money and heck, it's kind of fun. She grew bangs to cover what she thought was a weird-looking forehead, but other than that, she never concealed anything. Bettie herself is quoted as saying, in 2006: "I want to be remembered as the woman who changed people's perspectives concerning nudity in its natural form."

As the NYT correctly reports, Bettie was born in Jackson, Tenn. (not Nashville -- Jackson's down toward Memphis). Her pinup years were nicely immortalized in Mary Harron's movie "The Notorious Bettie Page," in which Gretchen Mol captures some of her vivacity (although that girl is awful skinny). She went through a religious conversion, a few unhappy marriages, and a decade in a mental institution, and ended up living out here in L.A. I always sort of hoped I'd run into her somewhere and we'd fall into a discussion about Tennessee, although she probably wouldn't have wanted to talk about Tennessee. Besides, it had been many years since she allowed someone to photograph her face; she wanted to be remembered as she was in her golden era. Which is kind of cool. She could have been any 85-year-old walking around out here.

There's a holiday angle to her story, as the NYT notes: "Her big break was the Playboy centerfold in January 1955, when she winked in a Santa Claus cap as she put a bulb on a Christmas tree." But I'll still be thinking of her this summer when I put on my Bettie swimsuit.

It's Christmas. Let's have a ghost story!

I'm coming off a trio of excellent ghost stories, my little pippins. I'll post about the other two later but will start off with my favorite: "The Woman in Black," by Susan Hill. This book has been on my to-read list for years but it's surprisingly hard to find. None of my last few libraries has had it and it's never in stores... I finally caved and included it in a big Amazon order last month. I read it on a visit home over two nights, sitting by the fire while my parents watched football. The racket of the TV kept me from getting too creeped out while the fire added nice atmosphere: it was a perfect setting for this classic ghost story.

The narrator is celebrating Christmas with his second wife and her grown children; he's enjoying the merriment and the good times when the family starts clamoring for a ghost story, and his mood darkens. He goes for a walk and remembers what happened to him many years ago, when he was a young, happily betrothed solicitor. His firm sends him from London to a northern town, to settle affairs for a client who's just died. No one in the town wants to talk about the client and her creepy old house, and no one comes to the funeral... but a mysterious woman in black appears in the back row during the service. When he mentions her, the reaction is shock and horror. She's a ghost!

This book has everything: a big creepy house on the marsh; ghostly sightings; ghostly sounds; a haunted nursery (yes!); a cute dog; and, most heartbreakingly, a very relate-able narrator who really does his best to pull himself together and do his job. You just deeply feel for the guy as events unfold. What would you do differently? Probably nothing. The pieces of the story fall inexorably into place around him, and there's no way he can escape.

At one point I was reading and gave a tremendous gasp. Mom looked up from the third down (or whatever football has) and I said, "He's alone in the house at night and the lights just went out!"
She said "How can you read those things?"

In 1989 the book was adapted for British TV, and I managed to track down a copy at the excellent Cinefile (and then kept it for an extra week -- sorry, guys). I had been working up this post in my head when I sat down to watch the movie, but afterward, I didn't want to even think about "The Woman in Black." It's taken me about a month to get it together enough to write this. The movie is absolutely terrifying. It nails all the best elements from the book, adds some good twists and some beautiful images, and gives you one scene that made me scream out loud here in the living room. Not a start; not a yelp; nothing that could be followed by embarrassed laughter, but a genuine scream of terror. (I had just taken a mouthful of hot toddy, which was extra tragic.) Oh my God. I've never seen anything like it. Final Girl has, as usual, an excellent review.

I understand the stage play is excellent as well, but haven't talked to anyone who's seen it. Apparently it makes explicit the terrifying subtext -- the reader/audience is as helplessly involved in things as the protagonist, so are we cursed too? Brr! Let's turn on all the lights!

Monday, December 08, 2008

Stealth in action

Apparently I saw a Stealth bomber yesterday, although at the time I thought it was a kite. It was moving very slowly and looked sort of aimless. Glimpsed out of the corner of my eye, drifting over the hilltops against a cloudy sky, it looked sort of like a distant Dementor. A few minutes later I was driving under it on the eastbound 110 and noticed it looked like a Stealth fighter. "Huh," I said, and watched it meander off into the distance, and then forgot entirely about it it until I saw Wil Wheaton's post about it just now. I was on my way to Art Boy's and he would probably have been pretty interested... oh well. We did see a guy on a Segway, which was exciting for us.

Anyway, I keep forgetting I live in a place where the thing that looks like a Stealth fighter might actually be one, and the nerdy scruffy old guy at the restaurant who looks like Dustin Hoffman might actually be Dustin Hoffman. It's not really ***OMG L.A.*** anymore, it's just where I live. Which is pretty nice.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Hang on, Bettie!

Fellow Tennessee native and retired pinup goddess Bettie Page is in the hospital this evening after having a heart attack. She's said to be critically ill. Send her your good thoughts, please. I don't think I can handle losing Bettie on top of everything else.