Sunday, 19 September 2010


On page 367 of his labyrinthine history of film 'VIZ-A-VIZUAL', scholarly Teuton L. Bosch cites a Romanian text written by the shamanic historian Nicolae Nicolescu, who articulated the fate and epitaph of Vincenzo Loao, a local baron of mixed parentage who fell from his horse and died in 1913. Nicolescu centres on Loao as the primary symbol of what he calls 'Tigan tau' (loosely translated as 'gypsy tao'), a minor fad in parts of Eastern Europe during the early decades of the 20th Century.

Loao sustained a head injury in his fall, but lived long enough to insist on a message for his own headstone. It was a mixture of Romanian, Portuguese and indecipherable words. His younger brother, the stout Dmitri, dutifully saw to it that his wishes were adhered to, without understanding the message. Fragments could be made to make sense, if forced- one line that most agreed on was 'the hummingbird cannot be seen to move' although some argued that it was more like 'the hummingbird moves so quickly no-one can see', a subtle difference, but a difference all the same.

Nicolescu, dipping beyond local folklore located a theory, and it centred on what L Bosch described as 'a Twilight Zone dreamache, a Borgesian hello, a whole philosophy rendered so cryptic as to be unseen'. Study of Loao thus far had dismissed his interest in religion, in particular that 'derivation of Eastern transcendentalism fed through a Dead Sea gauze and winged with Romany blood rituals and flower-theory' that Nicolescu calls key to 'his attempts at understanding mortality.' Nicolescu was knee-deep in this when a development came and changed his book.

March 1966: a publican in Bucharest found two reels of film in his basement that could not be identified. Rather than handing them to the authorities, he was persuaded by a patron of his bar to let them be taken to a local intellectual known only as 'Gheorghe'. An acquaintance of Gheorghe's identified the main actor appearing in both films as Vincenzo Loao, the exotic part-foreigner who had died fifty years earlier. His striking black features and his long frame (Loao being, by various accounts, anywhere between six and seven feet tall) was verified by many in Loao's hometown, just twenty miles from the capital. Gheorghe noticed that some locals refused to look at the films, despite them both being only seven minutes in length, and containing only innocuous footage of Loao walking, dancing and performing a quiet array of poses for the camera.

Frustrated by the apparent superstitiousness of the locals, Gheorghe was about to leave when a mute and almost blind man gestured to him from the trees. He led Gheorghe through the woods in near dark until he came to an apparently abandoned barn. He gestured for Gheorghe to go inside, where there was nothing except a pile of wood in the centre of the building, prepared as if for a fire. The old mute walked to the pile, lifted the wood and pulled out a can of film. On it was drawn a small white symbol. He pointed to this carefully, and then placed the film in Gheorghe's hands, gesturing for him to leave quickly.

It was another film of Loao. This time twelve minutes in length. Although slightly deteriorated, the long dark gentleman can be seen throughout, performing several poses that appear to be akin to a slow martial art. It still made little sense.

But then: in 1967, Gheorghe received an anonymous package. It was another film, much like the previous ones. Another arrived a month later, and yet another within two weeks. He received a tip-off of a Loao film turning up in Sarajevo, and retrieved it by train. Another was sent to him by an acquaintance in West Berlin, who had no knowledge of his search. When Gheorghe was interviewed by Filmdat, a Greek periodical later that year, he drew attention to the films, and received an influx of new material. A stockbroker in London sent him a piece from his collection, that showed Loao on a horse approaching a castle; a projectionist at a picture house in Queens, New York sent a film to Gheorghe that had been found amid reels of fading previews and curled B-movies.

In all, there were twenty pieces of film, all starring Loao. Gheorghe pieced them together as best he could, but could make no sense of them. He was convinced of a narrative, but could not recreate it.

Nicolecu writes: 'Gheorghe tried it all; tried plying them in every possible order. Still, they only glowed with suggestion. But then, something strange happened. When trying to change from one reel to another, Gheorghe's projector chewed two reels into its mouth and threw them onto the screen simultaneously; the two images (one of Loao performing an odd karate; one of Loao miming fishing) were combined, and created an entirely new shape: and behold! when Loao moved into a lotus position, and this was now juxtaposed with him riding a horse near a castle, one could see something forming: new shapes, appearing like hieroglyphics, his body shapes forming letters, sentences: there is an A, hard and angular, there is a C, soft but clear. And the Gheorghe remembered Loao's epitaph, regarding the hummingbird, and pondered that the film stock may be wings, which, when beaten together at ferocious pace would cause order to come... and after many weeks of re-watching and watching, Gheorghe discovered the statement that Loao had left and hidden. The sped-up images of contorted body parts combined to spell out the following:

'I have nothing to say... There is no more... my body is dead... I cannot believe in a world that exists without me... therefore I must be alive... forever more.'

Post-script: the identity of 'Gheorghe' has never been fully known. Some postulate that he was in on a hoax, that he was a Loao, or similiar; some suggest he is non-existent, a surrogate created by Nicolescu. Details do not suffice.

Pe Avioanele Invizibile Directed by Dmitri Loao Starring Vincenzo Loao Release Date US/UK: N/A. Shown in its edited Gheorghe inspired form at MOMA in 2001.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

GLITTERED SHOULDERS (Douglas Sirk, 1961)

'To know inauthenticity is not the same as to be authentic' Paul de Man

'To appreciate a film like Glittered Shoulders probably takes more sophistication than to understand one of Ingmar Bergman's masterpieces, because Bergman's themes are visible and underlined, while with Sirk the style conceals the message.' Roger Ebert

Pierre Imperius, firebrand beat critic for the short-lived Insouciance '55 said of Douglas Sirk's Glittered Shoulders that 'if insoluble dubious intent is the barometer of febrile justice (and judging by the nixed reactions to the Testament of Offshore Leaking, and Korea, and The State of the United States, actually, it may well not be) then tensions must surely mount upon the fluid release from this hellish discharger; for Sirk may purport to mock vanities, but he is decadence disempowered, stripped to fervent longing and lack of belonging and unfurling and and and and... the self-indulgence on display is surely worthy of crucifixion, with no chance of resurrection.'1

A counter-argument comes from an unlikely source. In his erudite examination of road movies Gas, Food and Longing (1986) shabby philosopher Milo Holodex takes in a pitstop (sunny vista, near a large villa, walled gardens) and lingers on Sirk briefly, suggesting that, in his repeated examination of lovers and haters in situ (A house, a stage, a house as a stage) Sirk 'tackles American displacement from within; his characters are eating the heart out, whereas the Easy Riders and Kowalskis are just eating out, heartlessly'.2

But time and time again, purported avant-garde or experimental film-makers are cut a huge amount of slack, whereas huge studio names like Sirk are drafted into the drippy camp, tarred as counter-revolutionary or dimly praised as 'stylists.' But surely with Glittered Shoulders Sirk nails what any number of angry Shampoos or Blow-Ups or Beyond the Valley of the Dolls stuck it to (in their varied ways) later and with less complexity. It drapes a plot over the arm of a Hollywood setting, and implodes a cold and hucksterish scene from inside-out (which perhaps is scientifically an impossible metaphor, but such is the sleight of hand that Sirk pulls: The satire is so vast as to be invisible. This Hollywood stage is bedevilled with such ornate decadence that it would a miracle for the keen starlets, oaken actors and trophy-laden old money to notice the elephant in the room (with its irony tusks). Elephantitis, or similar visible and/or tropical disease, would be sniffed like freshly-cut gossip from next week and banished or paraded accordingly.)

Anita Ekberg is the bombshell with an LSD addiction, paying regular visits to a German doctor; Richard Widmark the producer from the storied family who seeks to live up to his name with on-screen success and off-screen destruction; Groucho Marx has a flinty cameo as a cynical party host with an impenetrable hold on the tastemakers; Lana Turner, in curious series of wigs and eyelashes is Baroness Barba Gabrielle Gastoni (or 'Lady Baba Gaga for short, and boy is she short with everyone,' as Marx tells all), the lost lead around who the film spins. She enters, she leaves, she sighs, and endless orchestral variations of Henry Mancini's 'Theme From Glittered Shoulders'3 follow and follow and follow, until it feels like this elegiac drift is not so much an announcement of her beauty and presence as a haunting reminder of her spindly existence.

All of the characters speak knowingly and with apparent wisdom (of goings on, of what to do, of who does who, and how they do), and yet each screams sadness with every smirk. Marx is particularly effective in this regard; his familiar smart-aleck persona rendered, with a slight shifting of mirrors, unlikeable and desperate. The difference is minor (Groucho Marx is, after-all, always Groucho Marx), and many critics see here only a paler imitation of his best performances. But this is Sirk's masterstroke, withholding the genius when necessary, frustrating the audience and the performer. He performs a dramatic castration, an orchestrated self-savagery epic and lushly toned, in which satire is buried so deep as to be be as cool and cruel as the ice princess at its centre, Turner.

I return to Paul de Man: 'Irony divides the flow of temporal experience into a past that is pure mystification and a future that remains harassed forever by a relapse within the inauthentic. It can only restate and repeat it on an increasingly conscious level.' Sirk's genius is that he manages to unite these two separate time zones in a place so rarely visited that it took viewers and critics years to discover the breadcrumb trail led somewhere.

Glittered Shoulders Directed by Douglas Sirk Produced by Ross Hunter Written by Allan Scott Starring Lana Turner, Richard Widmark, Anita Ekberg, Groucho Marx, Music by Henry Mancini, Universal Pictures 123 min Release Date US: June 1961 UK: November 1961 Tagline:'Come rub shoulders with the stars.'

1. Insouciance'55, vol3 No12, Summer 1961. Imperius said lots of things for their coin, and took a long time saying them: He wrote 100,000 words over a two year period.
2. Holodex makes another claim worth repeating:'
'the sixties represent the beginning of the end not because of drugs or sexual deviancy or civil rights or Vietnam, but because it was the first time that a huge minority of Americans became aware of the mass illusion that there is a joke that they have to be in on; this is what is loosely known as cool; it poisons the waters of the most benign offerings, and does so endlessly, so much so that instead of admiring great achievements, we spend longer avoiding great embarrassments'.
I think it is worth thinking about Sirk with these words in our ears, because not only did his career end as 'the sixties' formed, but because no modern concept of cool includes elements that are especially Sirkian; The man himself had no concern for it. He said: 'the great artists... have always thought with the heart'. He also said, (regarding the film's relative box-office failure) 'I could suggest a thousand reasons why nobody wanted this. But they would all be incorrect. Motives are always confused, always, if they are honest. And by honest I do not know what I mean.' These two statements need not be seen as contradictory.
3. The main theme song was composed by Henry Mancini, crooned by Ricky Nelson, and had notable lyrics by Mack Discant:
'When you rub shoulders with the stars, you get glittered limbs
you compose wild hymns
In your pseudonym, she swims
And other synonyms'