The Big Sleep
Oak Street Cinema, starts Friday
Uptown Theatre, starts Friday
LIKE IT OR not, we're stuck with history, because its artifacts refuse to disappear--a chunk of ice and rock in the sky, a bordello on the St. Paul riverfront, Debbie Reynolds (and her opinions) at the Oscars. Some artifacts are welcome upon rediscovery; certainly Debbie Reynolds is. But all newfound artifacts require new meaning, and force us to figure them out on their own terms. Certainly Hale-Bopp led to some unexpected conclusions.
Movie artifacts are so common these days they need to be genuinely special to merit attention. This week, by some odd cosmic coincidence, both Humphrey Bogart's Philip Marlowe and Divine's shit-eating transvestite have their hands up and their badges of survival on. So which one's the "classic"? It's all a case of finding new meaning.
Howard Hawks's The Big Sleep is back not just because it's a great film (despite some long-famous narrative flaws) but for legitimate archival reasons. The Big Sleep, which follows Raymond Chandler's famous private eye Marlowe through several odd errands involving a wealthy family and numerous shifty goons, was begun in the fall of 1944 but not released until the fall of 1946. Nothing was particularly wrong with the movie as first shot, except that other things changed its context: As a non-war-related story awaiting release in 1945, it needed to step aside for timelier plots. And Lauren Bacall, who'd made a big splash with Bogart and audiences alike in To Have and Have Not, was a pending star who'd just made a misstep in another movie, Confidential Agent. Postponing the movie made sense, but Bacall's agent had another idea: He urged Warner Bros. to reshoot some scenes and restore Bacall's appeal to Have and Have Not levels.
The rest, of course, is history, although the print playing at Oak Street is the history that led up to the history we've known: the movie before it was "improved." The story has always been a hopscotch game of new facts and evolving suspicions, with Bogart following leads like some errant knight who'll never find the right dragon. The "old" version makes the story a little clearer, but more interestingly it shows--when compared to the modified version in a short documentary that follows--how Hollywood could both protect its stars' imagery and spin gold out of flax. This classic has always been an improvisation on the idea of film noir crime-solving, and viewing this earlier version creates a parallel "story" of the film's rediscovery and alteration, which has its own improvisational angle. Have stars ever been sufficient unto themselves? Now that we know how much the backstage machinations of agents construct the "magic" of the movies, this particular artifact makes for an engrossing object lesson.
In 1946 the U.S. was a victorious nation heading into a brief recession before an unprecedented economic boom; It's a Wonderful Life came out, and Detroit was making cars again. In 1972, by contrast, Richard Nixon went to China and Jane Fonda went to Hanoi; the last men landed on the moon and "camp" was a place where white kids sang "Kumbayah." And then along came John Waters out of Baltimore, who spent $12,000 to film his friends in a story of demented frolics called Pink Flamingos.
This silver-anniversary movie is a "classic" only if there's an extra entry in your dictionary. Waters followed his plot about the contest to be "the filthiest person alive" by directing a talentless cast to sneer at all cultural conventions. Marital bliss, tasteful decor, parent-child relations, healthy diets, missionary-position sex, and dressing appropriate to one's gender--none of these were safe from Waters's attack.
Pink Flamingos' notoriety has always stemmed in part from a tacked-on finale in which its star Divine smears up a pat of dog-doo and swallows it, but it's the stuff that comes before that's more genuinely troubling. The movie is just as much an improvisation on a mood as The Big Sleep; vanity and selfishness are its obsessions, and unflinching record-keeping its method. The dialogue rambles on, the overacting is overacted, and a trailer home burns uncomfortably long, as if an arsonist was keeping the shots for his private album.
Waters went on to become a minor movie satirist, but in 1972 he was a mere guerrilla. I can't stand his movie, but I can both appreciate and deplore his gesture. All around him mainstream movies were aestheticizing violence to unprecedented degrees (e.g. The Godfather, Dirty Harry, and all those disaster epics), while a country's idealism was in shreds. In his own way, John Waters read this cultural barometer and laughed at it. I'd like to think there was a plan to make this movie an ultimate gesture. But where this could have been the point of no return, now talk shows parade aberrant compulsions as entertainment, and David Letterman regularly picks on ignorant fat guys. The new meaning of Pink Flamingos is in fact an old meaning, well-known to Jonathan Swift: Humans are both pigs and fools.
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