Monday, June 19, 2006

Say Goodbye To Love: Dietrich plays Von Sternberg

Why on earth would I write, spend so much time expanding upon, revisiting and dissecting 30's film icon (ikon?) Marlene Dietrich? What might at first seem typical and quite, well... gay of me, is really far more elaborate and dynamic than popular culture would give credit. We've all seen them, the poster prints or coffee table books of the angelically lighted Dietrich, exhaling cigarette smoke that cascades in plumes about her head. That image from V.S.'s Shanghai Express where she leans against the door frame and looks up into the light - however magnificent the image may be composed - is marred by prevalent culture's (mis)use. It, rather than illustrating a toxic beauty or languid decadence (Wiemar), becomes an 'I Spy' of a historically loaded image - similar to viewing the "real" 'Starry Night,'which has so long ago ceased to be a painting.

Dietrich is V.S.'s dirty bitch, a whore of the highest caliber. Though, a whore never quite divorced from her childhood fantasies. This can be seen many times, though it takes a scrutinous eye to not merely be swept up in the flood of shadow, silk, smoke and lights that paint a V.S. movie like Versaille. More. Well, really less, but V.S.'s camera lenses wandered the squashed field of focus, never betraying the limited parameters of the "actual" setting. (This becomes the real world, and it is irredeemably vast) Her hesitation can be found in the Dietrich's playful (while surprisingly mortal) pregnant pauses. You watch her think. She's never quite as bright as you want her to be, but then neither are the movies. And though this may be a detractor to most works of cinema, it proves V.S.'s greatest asset; narrative absurdity makes these works all the better. Blonde Venus is so boring when it seems it's earnest. It's not(well, Dietrich was a little, but really, who cares?). In the moments of falter, when the pesky plot on which we're anchored fade, meta-character (or visage, persona) and set may take full reign. And those are the glorious bits!

But you have to forget the "Glamour Girl" and the 'La Vie En Rose' chanson be-furred glitz Toss the fashion photos (they're beside the point, really). There's a reason for the appeal and it runs more than skin deep. She wasn't just beautiful (and neither was she really a good actor). She was a feminine persona for V.S. (who, in many ways would just as well played dress up - though this might have gone over rather poorly on Hollywood audiences). She was his anima. Mostly, you must forget Dietrich without V.S., V.S. without Dietrich. Mostly.

Need some economic escapism and Wiemar decadence, see Dietrich. She would corrupt the most demure. She had teeth in the vagina which V.S. could not stop reminding us that she had. These were sizzlers, pot boilers. She wasn't respectful! Never!

Watch just one of the V.S. / Marlene movies. Then watch it again. Then again. You'll be surprised, I promise you. There's more to it than ALL of that which meets the eye. V.S. was a master aesthete, but he also (a) knew the wonderful nuance which might evade the cluttered eye and (b) possessed the cynical attitude that you - the Hollywood viewer - expect to be slightly more kind than it ever really turns out to be. When she kicks off her shoes in Morocco and walks behind her paramour in the fierce desert, she does it more to crush the rich benefactor who courts her ceaselessly than to fill the desire that rests in her not quite pitch black heart. And she'll die. V.S. makes that quite clear. When the cold and daunting sound of the wind outlasts the swelling orchestral score, you know that the same end will find Amy Joly.


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