Monday, 22 March 2010

THE TRANSCENDENTALIST (Charles Laughton, 1951)

The Transcendentalist finally makes peace with itself about an hour in, settling into a nonsense rhythm reminiscent of another sub-prime classic you'll have on the tip of your tongue, like the name of a minor lover you spent a long week promising to never forget on one of the more tousist-ridden Greek islands when you were eighteen and promptly didn't write to, ever, despite wanting to. (Why didn't you?) Gary Cooper, heretoforth vibrating with alacrity between folksy hero and weary cynic (a pendulum on which almost every Hollywood lead swings, at least if they're not on the one that ticks on homespun innocence and tocks, unbelievably but inevitably, on genius and glory. Neither are exclusive; many character arcs greedily take in both donging devices, or an unholy mixture of both), takes sixty minutes of chewing gum (beautifully, slowly, sexily, evoking the old Wrigley's slogan 'Too much mastication will make you go blind', a minor classic of inverse-advertising that made the kids chew their way through the fifties) before he ups the gears into something more, something om; He discovers a fifty-foot meta-Cooper at exactly the same time as James Agee and Dirk Langston's script begins to sing a second simultaneous song, spreading melodic shards in many new curves; this is also the exact moment that Charles Laughton's direction seems to twist into a new heaven, somehow capturing the exact moment that Western Philosophy meets east, causing a blissful Oz to permeate the director's canvas/Kansas.

Hyperbole? Watch it, and you too will think that the film suddenly shifts from black and white to colour. But it doesn't; it just seems that way, an illusion created by a coincidence of genius. ' Every one of my mother, Colin Cowdrey, Eleanor Roosevelt and Rin Tin Tin see the ending in colour,' said Graham Greene in a Times piece in 1956, going on to refute the myth that dogs are colourblind, instead suggesting that they see in fact a dim rainbow, in which blue is especially noticeable to their eye... 'so perhaps Rin Tin Tin appreciates the waterfall sequence here in a somewhat nuanced way'.

A metaphysical detective story becomes decadent, endless inqury; Cooper wanders into the golden countryside, not leaving a linear plot behind but somehow multiplying it tenfold and making even more sense. The gates of noir are flung apart.1 Somehow, you wonder, if in fact mankind would have been condemned long ago but for these curious puzzles we create to confuse the gods. Art doesn't just amuse us, it buys us time, until we can figure out a suitable escape plan. And so flippant jokes can actually be mordant philosophies, and Gary Coopers can actually be religious vessels, carrying our fevered hopes as far as they can before their knees buckle and they grow tired and tiresome.

'Our noons were in the same sky,' said Cooper of his time working with Laughton, Agee and Langston. The public wavered, however, finding the hard stare of genius too much to bear, and went to see other entertainments instead. 'Such is life,' remarked Laughton, I shouldn't wonder that if Christ was resurrected in our lifetimes, we would surely fail to notice.'
The Transcendentalist is the first of two one-hit wonders of Laughton's directorial career in Hollywood, the other being Night of the Hunter (1955), another slice of sublime dissonance.

(Nance... Nancy- that was it her name, knew her for a week in 1993. Or Susan. From Stepney, or Colchester. A six-foot tall tomboy in a West Ham shirt on the verge of blooming into a stunner, a fact of which she was all too oblivious. She was relatively spiteful in play on holiday, but wrote two letters full of longing back home. There was no response. She is thought of seldomly, but once every six months a girl with her likeness walks past and causes a wave of wistfulness.)

The Transcendentalist Directed by Charles Laughton Produced by Paul Gregory Written by James Agee, Dirk Langston, United Artists 92 mins Release Date US: Jan 1951/UK: Aug 1951
Tagline: 'He's gone.'

1. David Lynch was heavily influenced by The Transcendentalist, and the central motif of a detective encircled by mysterious evils was evident in Twin Peaks, with Lynch even naming his Special Agent hero after Gary Cooper.

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