Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Exotics

There's a smile in The Scarlet Empress that Marlene Dietrich gives that betrays her entire role as a feminine (feminzed?) icon. It is one that had to be slighted, allowed in the most fragmented of doses because it was in fact the true intent of her raison d'etre. Forget the woman on the run/down trodden nightclub singer routine. Dietrich's role was that of the fly trap. She was the castration anxiety for a generation of a Freudian public. In this aforementioned scene, Dietrich, here playing Catherine the Great, though this incidental information could be seen as truly coincidental, Dietrich has killed the Czar (her husband) of Russia and taken his place on the throne. Her face shimmers, radiates, blinds with a bloodthirsty, insane power. Her teeth, clenched so tightly, bared. Her eyes calculatingly fixed. Jack Smith described Von Sternberg's as "the neurotic gothic deviated sex-colored world and it was a turning inside out of himself and magnificent."

Von Sternberg's is, as Smith realized, a visual world. It is a world of smoke plumes and veils, of burning candles and ringing bells. Smith called Von Sternberg a transvestite who projected himself onto Dietrich "in a world of delirious unreal adventures. Thrilled by his/her own movement - by superb task in light, costumery, textures, movement, subject and camera, subject/camera/revealing faces..." Smith recognizes Von Sterberg's plot as trite, laughable, trivial because it was. "I don't think Von Sternberg knew that words were in his way, but he felt it - neglected them, let them be corny and ridiculous, let them run to travesty - and he invested his images with all the care he rightfully denied the words." Today, on a lazy Sunday, I watched Shanghai Express and these words could ring more true.

If there is anything mediocre about a Von Sternberg film it is the fact that he did not allow himself abandon. We do not believe it when the Dietrich whom we have seen previously arrest an entire crowd with a sideways glance and a fetching yet still somewhat morbid outfit swoon over the love of a man. Why should we? No, this Dietrich will always be the Dietrich Victorious - at the throne of the Czar of Russia, earning her place with blood. This is not the sensitive woman that masquerades before us. Shanghai Express is a delight, and one of Von Sternberg's better narratives, yet this is not of import. The stellar moments of the film are those visual flares that Von Sternberg was allowed: superimpositions, the garments (at one moment I cried out when Shanghai Lily -Dietrich, of course- seems to lose her luggage. "The Clothes!" I shouted, after all, in this world, these are the important things), the scene in which a plume of smoke abstract Dietrich's face and we must wait for the moment when the smoke has cleared so that we may see her unmasked. And we are still waiting for that moment to come.


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