Saturday, October 17, 2009

IT's Elinor Glyn's birthday!

Born today in 1864, she was an English Edwardian novelist, in her mid-fifties when the nineteen-twenties dawned, matronly of build and to the casual observer more Margaret Dumont than Clara Bow.
But Elinor Glyn was nonetheless as seminal an architect of the Jazz Age as Scott Fitzgerald.
She was born of aristocratic stock in Jersey - that's old Jersey, over here, where the cows come from - and moved in distinctly high society circles. Unhappy in marriage, she wrote for something to do and latterly to maintain her standard of living; her colourful romances were published at the rate of one a year and scandalised her contemporaries. In Hollywood, they tallied exactly with the themes and attitudes of the contemporary sex-dramas that De Mille and others were pioneering, and she was happy to take up the offer to cross the pond and write scenarios.
It was she, of course, who coined the term 'it', not as a polite euphemism for sex appeal, as is often claimed, but to describe that more indefinable kind of attraction that rises from the unique chemical nature of certain individuals, and transcends mere personality, charm, sexual attractiveness and similarly measurable characteristics.
Inevitably she was asked just who, in the public eye, had It. Among men, she nominated Gary Cooper, and he was known briefly as the It Boy, but it didn't take. Her christening Clara Bow the It Girl, however, did - indeed it pretty much sealed up posterity for the both of them.

Elinor Glyn is like a phantom hovering over twenties culture. Her work, swooningly idealistic and in many respects oddly out of step with the pace of the twenties, is far less obviously influential to its moment than that of Dorothy Parker, say, or Anita Loos. Her primary innovation was a discreetly heightened eroticism and, more importantly, an unvarnished frankness about her protagonists' desires and motivations. But from this she built a reputation as a kind of elder stateswoman and mascot of twenties emancipation (both female emancipation and youth emancipation). She also became a name to drop. In a delightful musical short called Office Blues Ginger Rogers plays a stenographer lamenting her inability to attract her dishy, brainy boss. The problem is incompatibility of interests and station, expressed in a couplet so joyous it deserves an on-screen round of applause:
He is such a colour-blind bee and I'm a wasted flower,
I'm the type reads Elinor Glyn and he reads Schopenhauer.
Yet it is of just such dilemmas that the typical Glyn romance was forged. Certainly the one about the working girl and the boss's son, that reappeared in Hollywood movies with such ritualistic frequency throughout the twenties and thirties, if not invented by her, was surely to some degree crystallised under her jurisdiction. It is also the basis of her most iconic monument, Bow's film It, only tangentially indebted to her work, but erected as a kind of monument to her, and in which she consents to make a suitably regal cameo appearance as herself.
She would have made a splendid addition to any Hollywood party, and served in just that function for many years, just as she does in The Cat's Meow, Peter Bogdanovich's generally excellent account of the death of Thomas Ince, where, in an inaccurate but charming portrayal by Joanna Lumley, she narrates as well as features in the unfolding mystery.
She died back in London in 1943, in a world that had outgrown hers in just about every conceivable sense.
But she takes a much deserved place in the Movietone News heroes' parade. Happy birthday, Elinor.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Roman Polanski falls foul of law intended for ordinary people

Gotta love that petition doing the rounds, in which the great and the good of Hollywood (both terms here being used ironically) bemoan the recent arrest of Roman Polanski for some trivial offence he committed thirty years ago and bravely fled the consequences of.
"We are calling every filmmaker we can to help fix this terrible situation," says Harvey Weinstein, Miramax gargantuan and organiser of the petition. "Whatever you think about the so-called crime," claims Weinstein (a jolly, red-faced man who owns a production company that deliberately makes bad films), "Polanski has served his time. A deal was made with the judge, and the deal is not being honoured... This is the government of the United States not giving its word and recanting on a deal, and it is the government acting irresponsibly and criminally."
No, Polanksi hasn't spent the past thirty years inflicting crud like Bitter Moon on the world - you just dreamt that - instead he has - somehow - "served his time". And that's the important point, never mind what outdated, reactionary views you may cling to about "the so-called crime" of raping a kid. "Hollywood has the best moral compass, because it has compassion," Weinstein continued, presumably as a joke.
"Obviously, my sympathies are with Roman," said Robert Towne, obviously. World-famous international superstar Debra Winger says "the whole art world suffers" when the law deigns to treat their sainted number like mere mortals. Whoopi Goldberg, displaying a depth of perception so vast even Weinstein couldn't get it down in one gulp, assures us that the director didn't really commit rape. It was more, sort of, rape-ish. "I think he's sorry," she explained. "I think he knows it was wrong." Well... okay, Whoopi, so long as he knows it was wrong... I suppose it is a bit rich to expect him to make any further amends for drugging a thirteen year old girl and ignoring her when she asks him not to sodomise her.
Outside of the film industry the BS has been flowing just as freely: French culture minister Frédéric Mitterrand is "dumbfounded" by Polanski's "absolutely dreadful" treatment, relating as it does to "an ancient story". According to this chap, "there is a generous America that we love, and a certain America that frightens us. It's that America that has just shown its face." Yep, that frightening side of America that expects its citizens, wherever possible, not to drug and rape children.
Patrick Goldstein in the Los Angeles Times shrewdly notes that "at a time when California is shredding the safety net that protects the poor and the unemployed, not to mention the budget of the public school system, you'd hope that L.A. County prosecutors had better things to do" than persecute child-rapists. According to this gold-plated doofarooney, "Polanski has already paid a horrible, soul-wrenching price for the infamy surrounding his actions. The real tragedy is that he will always, till his death, be snubbed and stalked and confronted by people who think the price he has already paid isn't enough."
The real tragedy is not the forced sodomising of a thirteen year old girl, it's the notion that the assailant, after thirty years living the high life in Paris, should now be "snubbed" and even - imagine it if you can - "confronted" by people who think "the price he has already paid isn't enough."
You may be wondering what this "horrible, soul-wrenching price" - you remember: the one he has already paid - is, exactly. According to Goldstein: "Polanski's sins have not been forgotten. He has been barred from returning to the U.S. and prevented from traveling to other countries, including England, because of extradition issues. His career has clearly suffered from his inability to work in Hollywood..."
His career has suffered? Bad karma. Poor man.
And here's Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post (in an article titled "The Outrageous Arrest of Roman Polanksi"): "he has paid for the crime in many, many ways: In notoriety, in lawyers' fees, in professional stigma. He could not return to Los Angeles to receive his recent Oscar."
Okay, let's recap. He rapes a child, and pays the horrible, soul-wrenching price of notoriety, lawyers' fees, the professional stigma that has led every director in Hollywood to sign Harvey's petition, the inability to collect an Oscar in person, and the fact that Pirates was shit.
"He can be blamed, it is true, for his original, panicky decision to flee," cedes Applebaum magnanimously, but even here she can "see mitigating circumstances, not least an understandable fear of irrational punishment." Irrational, yes. Exactly the word I'd use. I mean, it wasn't like he raped a whole bunch of kids. It was only one. Some perspective here, please.
And why did he have an understandable fear of irrational punishment? "Polanski's mother died in Auschwitz. His father survived Mauthausen. He himself survived the Krakow ghetto, and later emigrated from communist Poland. His pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered in 1969 by the followers of Charles Manson, though for a time Polanski himself was a suspect." Undoubtedly the prospect of facing some combination of these things was what was going through his mind when he took the decision to peg it out of America and live it up in France.
The tacit understanding seems to be: if you've had to endure that much horror in your life, the law should show a little more empathy when you start raping kids. There but for the grace of God go I. Who are we, who have never endured such appalling misfortune, to claim that we would be able to resist the urge to rape children, until we have actually walked in his shoes? This is certainly what Mitterrand has in mind when he says that he "strongly regrets that a new ordeal is being inflicted on someone who has already experienced so many of them."
And when exactly did Polanski become a great director anyway? Until everyone went crazy for The Pianist I always thought he was pretty much an anachronism, a figure with a reputation somewhat akin to Roger Vadim's, with 1960's sensibilities and a constant erection, whose films aspire to a bygone standard of Euro-sophistication somewhere between arthouse seriousness and box-office populism, achieving neither. Even his most celebrated work could have been anybody's. Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown are competent genre stuff if you're in the mood for something trivial, the former distinguished by a few clever ideas and a great cast, the latter saddled with a tv-movie sense of period and an ending so absurdly pessimistic it's like a fourteen year old boy wrote it. What else is there? Well, there's Knife in the Water, I suppose, and the two British ones, which are - what? Interesting is, I guess, the word. The rest is basically a lot of monkeying about by a film-maker with a certain style but nothing whatever to say. He's best by far when he tries least to be somebody: in Frantic, for instance, or Tess.
You can disagree with this, and it seems that many, suddenly, do. But why that means he shouldn't be treated like anyone else when he commits a crime is anybody's guess.