Saturday, January 26, 2008

Vampira goes home


Edward D. Wood Jr's Plan Nine From Outer Space is unquestionably the most famous bad movie of all time.
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It first came to prominence in the late seventies when it was hailed as the worst film ever made, and Wood the world's worst director, and it was only over time that a more respectful cult grew around it, saluting Wood's inventiveness, eccentricity and resourcefulness.
A tragic, tortured individual, he sadly lived long enough to witness the first wave of acclaim but not the second. One of his stars, Valda Hansen, recalled him saying: "Do you think I care if I'm a millionaire? No... what hurts me is the cruelty toward me... I'm only trying to do the best at what I feel. All this garbage I see, they praise. And me, they seem to love to deride me."

The man had a point. At a time in the nineteen-seventies when so much acclaim was being heaped on childish, utterly pretentious films like One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, what was so terrible about a few wobbling tombstones and super-intelligent aliens who write their plans for world domination on scruffy sheets of A4?
Looking back at that 'Golden Turkey' period, and thinking of Wood's final days - alcoholic, barely scraping a living, still proud of his films and desperate to make another - it does all seem unbelievably cruel. He did indeed do the best he could with what he had, and parts of his films really are triumphs of inspiration over an almost complete lack of resources. Of course, that does not make them good movies by any objective standard, but Wood was an eccentric who should have been treasured.

And as for Plan Nine itself, it seems to me that while later attempts to redress the injustice by hailing him as a genius and visionary are plainly ridiculous, the narrow-mindedness of the earlier mockery is equally blinkered.
The truth is that the film does have some things going for it, especially in its first half. Once the heroes are on board the spaceship - with its tatty curtains and Dudley Manlove shrieking "Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!" - the absurdity of the concept becomes insurmountable. But some of the earlier sequences are genuinely spooky if you catch them in the right frame of mind - that is to say with a wide-eyed child's kind of imagination, which was exactly the kind of imagination Wood possessed. There is a visual style unique to the film, and the library music score is entirely effective. (The famous main theme is in fact a Soviet hymn to industry: 'Iron Foundry' by the Russian composer Alexander Mossolov.)
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And the human presence that most instantly evokes and defines it - far more than Lugosi, far more than chiropractor Dr Tom Mason pretending to be Lugosi with a cape over his face, more even than the stumbling, massive Tor Johnson - is actress Maila Nurmi, aka Vampira, who died earlier this month at the age of eighty-six.
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In the film she plays Bela Lugosi's wife, ressurected from the dead by aliens whose plan to enslave the earth by reviving human corpses is so obscure and ill-considered one can only wonder what their first eight plans were like. She is never named: Vampira is how she is billed as actress rather than character. The notion of a zombie being played by a woman called Vampira is in fact one of the subtler oddities that proliferate in Wood's universe.
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'Vampira' was originally a character Nurmi created for television, a role in which she could provide on-screen introductions to late-night horror shows. Unlike her mute, scary turn in Plan Nine, she was flirty and fun. The look she invented - tight black dress, long black hair, arched eyebrows and odd mix of skittishness and predatory allure, kind of like Veronica Lake's evil twin - was inspired in part by the famous Charles Addams cartoons but predates by years Carolyn Jones in The Addams Family, Yvonne de Carlo in The Munsters, Fenella Fielding in Carry On Screaming and all those other variations on the same basic formula.
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Wood's stars tend to fall into two categories: those that loved him, loved his films, appeared in several of them and hung out with him between pictures, and those who somehow found themselves roped in and couldn't believe the ants-nest of weirdoes, derelicts, has-beens and freaks into which they had landed. Chief among the latter has always been Plan Nine's hero, Greg Walcott, who has frequently scorned the notion that Wood was a frustrated artist, and opined that even with a big studio's resources he still would have made the same film. (His exact words were: "He had no taste. Even if he had ten million dollars it would have been a piece of tasteless shit.")
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Surprisingly, perhaps, Nurmi belonged to this latter category. Her entry into Wood's world came about through necessity rather than choice. The way she told it, she was being courted by all the major studios when she first heard that Wood was interested in signing her, and openly scorned the idea. But then she was blacklisted, and accepted Wood's offer in desperation when all other avenues had been closed to her.
According to her she was paid 200 dollars for a day's work, and travelled to and from the studio in full make-up on the bus.
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Rarely has screen immortality begun so humbly, for there is no doubt that a huge part of the film's enduring status is attributable to her role and her presence.
Plot-wise she is an utter mystery. All that the aliens are supposed to have done is make some corpses rise from their graves, and we are expected to believe that she is the wife of a rather elderly and conventional man, played by Lugosi. So to what are we expected to attribute her extraordinary appearance? Why was she buried in that incredible costume? What's with the make-up? Who cares? She looks sensational. For most of my teenage years this was exactly the girl I wanted on my arm.
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Her first appearances, if one thinks of them purely as cinema with no regard to the story Wood is supposedly telling, are gorgeous little pieces of film. Wood cuts to that tiny, minimalist grave set, jet-black save for a tomb, a single wizened tree and some wisps of fog in the extreme foreground. Slowly, from behind the tomb, she emerges, her arms held rigid but not straight, twisted at odd angles, shaking slightly as if palsied. Staring directly at us, she moves slowly but not gracefully, in odd, lurching spurts of movement. It is intercut with location shots of the two gravediggers (one of them producer J Edward Reynolds, a baptist who put up most of the money on the condition that the entire cast be baptised in a swimming pool) and the match is hopeless: they are in dusk on location, she in impenetrable, inky, studio blackness.

The effect is hard to describe but unforgettable to watch, and I'm aware that one can oversell it as much as undersell it... obviously it's not really scary and it makes no sense as drama... but purely on the level of imagery it is really quite beautiful.

Most of her sequences are variations on this set-up, walking either to the camera or away from it on this single cramped set, sometimes her face blank and placid, sometimes contorted in an evil sneer. On one memorable occasion we see her walking away from us in her fantastic dress, a tight belt around her tiny waist, before half-turning her head and looking directly at us with one eye.

Just imagine what her home-life with Lugosi had been like! The only reference we get implies complete domestic harmony: against poignant footage of Lugosi shot shortly before his death, narrator Criswell (a non-psychic psychic who predicted entire cities of homosexuals in America and an inter-planetary convention before the end of the twentieth century) intones typically purple, incomprehensible Ed Wood prose:
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The grief of his wife's death became greater and greater agony. The home they had so long shared together became a tomb, a sweet memory of her joyous living. The sky to which she had once looked was now only a covering for her dead body. The ever-beautiful flowers she had planted with her own hands became nothing more than the lost roses of her cheeks.
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Like so much else, perhaps everything else, about this film, the words are meaningless, crazed, hopelessly self-contradicting - yet oddly effective, strangely haunting.
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In later years, Nurmi seemed happily resigned to the fact that Plan Nine was her ticket to immortality, and spoke affectionately of Wood and the times they spent promoting the movie. Interviewed by Rudolph Grey for his generous and fascinating oral history of Wood's life and work Nightmare of Ecstasy she told of her most recent business venture: selling Hollywood celebrity grave rubbings by mail order.
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AND... I've only just learned that Yvonne de Carlo died last year, too; somehow the news got past me until now. A beautiful starlet in forties tosh, westerns and exotica (Salome Where She Danced, Frontier Gal, Slave Girl) and wife of Moses in The Ten Commandments, she will be remembered above all for the role of Lily Munster, which she accepted reluctantly and never quite came to terms with. She knew that The Munsters, rather than any of her starring movies, would unquestionably be her legacy, and the fact bemused her somewhat, but she appreciated the renewed popularity it brought her with successive generations of children.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

If not Walter then who?

Obviously, you go to Walter Sickert's Camden Town Nudes at the Courtauld knowing that you're in for a lot of Victorian-bashing. And you know that the theme of Sickert-as-iconoclast-genius-too-progressive-for-his-day will be milked until the udders come away in their hands. And so it proves.
The gallery notes have all the approved things to say about how these pictures went against the prevailing mood, how they shocked and horrified - oh those hopeless prudes! - and how their "uncompromising realism... set on iron bedsteads in the murky interiors of cheap lodging houses" violated Victorian propriety.
They don't actually have a dartboard with Ruskin's face on it in the corner but they probably would if you suggested it to them. Not that we need doubt the essential weirdness of an ethos that flees in horror from anatomical realism, but how about a glimmer of awareness that our own is at least equally morbid in being so obsessed with it?
Or better still, shut up and enjoy the paintings.
My favourite, I think is an early one: The Iron Bedstead (1906), which seems more relaxed and unforced than many of the later and more famous ones, though the most effective in its own terms is probably the most sinister: L'Affaire de Camden Town (1909, below).
The images are being sold heavily on sensation here, Saatchi-style (I think that's the right number of a's but don't quote me), and the link between them and the real life Camden Town murder is played up mercilessly.
And here, at least, in the claustrophobia, the intimidating relationship betwen the male and female figures and the unsettling way (lost in this scan) in which the wallpaper seems to leap to the forefront of the image, the cross-referencing does make some kind of sense. It seems pretty nasty, even if the exact scenario eludes us. The chap with his arms folded may or may not have murdered the woman, but he certainly seems capable, and her positioning hardly suggests sweet repose.
For most of the pictures, I think, the link is opportunistic in a manner typical of the Sickert who retitled a 1912 variation on the nude prostitute and clothed male The Prussians in Belgium in 1915. The Camden Town murder was a similarly convenient peg on which to hang a series of images far less sensational than their titles.
For instance, it may be accurate to say that The Camden Town Murder (1908, below), depicting a despairing man sat on the edge of a bed in which a naked woman stares at the wall is merely "also known as" What Shall We Do About The Rent?, but this title makes sense of the picture - it becomes a representation of a couple driven to prostitution to make ends meet; he despairing, she hiding her face - in a way that tangential reference to any real or imagined murder simply does not.
Sickert loves games like this; he was shrewdly commercial and, of course, theatrical.
I get the feeling that he was not an instinctive figurative artist: the disfiguring slashes of paint, the reduction of the subjects' faces to skull-like masks - a huge influence for later painters and Jack the Ripper theorists alike - seem more like obfuscation than technique. I think he found painting faces a bit of a chore: there is an odd asymmetry between the vigorous short hand with which he renders the subjects, and the minute detail of the carpets and fixtures. There is a far more assured, yet equally flavoursome, quality to the two small, delicate landscapes of Dieppes in an adjoining room than in any of the nudes themselves.
The best of Sickert, for me, remains his evocations of London's music halls, such as The Gallery at the Old Bedford (1895, left). These, too, have taken on something of a spooky quality in their voyage through the years, or certainly a gloomily elegiac one, but their intent, I assume, is to convey joyousness.
Sickert is, of course, no stranger to misrepresentation, as anyone who has encountered Patricia Cornwell's outrageous work of libel Portrait of a Killer will be well aware. Surely the silliest book ever written about the Whitechapel Murders (with the possible exception of Tony Williams's Uncle Jack) it is only the latest in a line of works and theories which have attempted to unmask Sickert as Jack the Ripper.
The confusion is fuelled largely by ignorance: most Ripper theorists ('Ripperologists' is the correct, but ludicrous, term) have a nodding acquaintance at best with Sickert and his work, while Sickert enthusiasts, quite understandably, have little time at all for the Ripperists, who they often caricature as morbid pseudo-historians.
The source of the Sickert connection was a colourful fantasist who called himself Joseph Sickert, claiming first to be the painter's grandson, then his son, and who alleged that Sickert himself told him a convoluted story when he was still an infant concerning a Royal conspiracy, an illegitimate child and a plot to silence the East End prostitutes who knew of it.
He told this to anyone who would listen, but it was a canny journalist called Stephen Knight who bothered to unravel the threads and present them as a book: Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, which apparently remains the best-selling book on the case. Knight died a young man, and his papers revealed that he knew the theory was nonsense even when writing the book. But it has slipped into popular mythology, never thereafter to be dislodged; it served as the basis for a tv series and two major films: From Hell (with Johnny Depp giving one of her most hilarious performances as Scotland Yard Inspector Abberline) and Murder by Decree (in which Sherlock Holmes himself unravelled the conspiracy, apparently without discovering it was cobblers halfway through but carrying on anyway like Knight did.)
There's also a tie-in documentary film, available at one time on video, which connoisseurs of Ripper-naff would do well to track down. It features a rare interview with Knight himself, and is hosted by Ray McGregor, an Australian in a trilby hat, leather trench coat and beige flares who calls himself 'Seeker of the Unknown' and is much given to pronouncements like "What she found can only be described as that which is existing in the corridors of nightmares". (Is that really the only way?) The film begins with wonderful footage of this Antipodean loon trudging through scary woodland to stock horror music accompaniment, and uses a still of Peter Cushing in Dr Terror's House of Horrors to illustrate Hitchcock's The Lodger.
Knight explains that he hit on the revelation that Sickert was one of the three Ripper killers after the third man proposed by Joseph Sickert - police chief Sir Robert Anderson - proved to be innocent. (Everything Joseph had said until now had proved accurate, Knight claims, with solid documentary evidence to back it up, but this claim rang false! Knight decided it was because Joseph wished to cover up Walter's direct involvement in the killings, leading to a rift between the two men culminating in Joseph's retraction of the entire story.) Just as Knight is about to launch into this part of the story McGregor interrupts and says "There's a twist coming, isn't there?"
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The standard case for Sickert-as-Ripper, beyond the obviously mischievous claims of Joseph, lies in a symbolic reinterpretation of his work analogous to the way in which he himself did things like retitle a nude study The Prussians in Belgium. Cornwell's book, which makes nothing of the Royal conspiracy, is based solely on this kind of dubious psychological horseplay. Is that a length of intestine coiled round the mannequin in Sickert's The Painter in His Studio (1907, above)? No, it is not. But it could be. So it is. Stuff like that.
Still, as theories go, it is far from uniquely absurd. In fact, virtually none of the most popular suspects that have been advanced over the years can be seriously upheld: not Gull, not Dr Tumblety, not 'Dr Stanley', not 'Jill the Ripper', certainly not Robert D'Onston Stephenson, not even Montague Druitt.
In fact, in the hundred and twenty years of speculation since the last killing, only three credible suspects have ever been advanced. They are:
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1. Somebody.
Not exactly the final solution, I'll grant you, but the smart money has always been on someone who never came under suspicion, vanished without trace and is now beyond all hope of reclamation.

2. Kosminski/Cohen/Whatever.
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Martin Fido's investigation into the second of the named police suspects produced flawed, inconclusive but interesting evidence, and his man remains the only plausible named suspect ever advanced by a researcher into the crimes.

3. James Maybrick.
Yes I know, I know. The way in which the diary was discovered and promoted could not have been more suspicious. But Paul Feldman's book Jack the Ripper: The Final Chapter more than convincingly jumps every hurdle and unearths a ton of corroborative evidence that truly does clear up all doubt about the circumstances in which it was found. Objections to some of the expressions used in the text, the ink and the paper have also been settled conclusively. As Sherlock Holmes said: "If you can eliminate the impossible, when all around you are eliminating theirs, the words will never show the you I've come to know". Or something like that. Anyway, Feldman's case seems logically inarguable. The only lingering problem I have, ironically, is with the diary itself. It's ludicrous; a sprawl of unmistakably late-twentieth century psychobabble translated into cod-Victorian. It's ridiculous enough to have come straight from The Silence of the Lambs, yet so complete is Feldman's case that I can't see any other way round it. So, with the utmost reluctance, it's Maybrick for me.

So there you have it: a century and a quarter of mystery, a million suspects, three good ones and a skipful of duds - mad midwives, mysogynistic homosexuals, masons, black magicians, American quack doctors and, of course, great Victorian artists... a lively guest list for any dinner party but not a Ripper among them.
Now go and see the Sickert show at the Courtauld; it closes on the 20th; and do your best to keep all thoughts of Jack the Ripper and the Camden Town Murders and lace covers over piano legs as far from your mind as possible. The paintings are better that way.
And while you're there, take a stunned look at the Gilbert Collection in the bowels of adjoining Somerset House. We stumbled upon this by accident and were amazed at what we found. If sheer excellence, beauty and painstaking attention to detail appeal to you, here are exquisite miniatures, snuff-boxes, painted marble, religious artefacts and incredible Roman micromosaics. You only have until Jan 28th to see it in this perfect setting - thereafter it moves to the V&A where it will be lost amidst the sprawl and profusion and madding crowds. It's one of the most fascinating things you'll ever see in London.