If Curtis Harrington had not had the ruined mall of hell unveiled to the world in 1905 as Venice of America as a setting for his occult fable, he might have been forced to build it himself. In American cinema, luck smiles like this on an auteur only rarely. Certainly no studio-bound artifice masquerading as urban grotesquerie could have been more perfect, more just.
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It is the custom of illuminated manuscripts to transform sacred words into shimmering icons that break, easily, beyond the sensory limitations of simple text, rendering ordinary letters into evocative, animate visual forms that invite the eye to idle awhile at the brink of transcendence, rather than standing at a distance, remote and unyielding, daring to be comprehended, accepted, believed. Strange and barely recognizable wildlife appear on vellum leaves, creatures that wind and unwind in ceaseless whirlpools of bejeweled abstraction. Or they are, if you prefer, the spirited exoskeletons of snakes, dragons, waterbirds – Celtic and Germanic obsessions meeting the Apostles of Christendom. Emerging in the British Isles between 500 and 900 CE, the Lindisfarne Gospels (below) provide an arena, lapidary and starlit, where paganism devours Christianity while also birthing the religion anew into what can only be described, if you’re honest, as “motion pictures.”
Put simply, movies are books made out of light, zoetic leaves and letters that move beyond their trellis, leaving us to decipher an enigma that is purely visual; all the more impossible to contain within mortal consciousness because the light of this steadfastly irrational art has swallowed up the text. There are those, however few in number, who have decoded this cryptic iconography, but mysteries remain, not unlike those mysteries – strange, delved, bewildering – contained within the gospels.
They are mysteries that urge upon us a radical reconsideration of silent cinema; of the book in film, of whispering pages; pages fluttering like leaves. Of Stan Brakhage, who gave us a series of works entitled The Book of Film and otherwise seemed incapable of regarding the universe independent of its sensual properties. Of Hollis Frampton and Peter Greenaway. Certainly of Robert Beavers, who incorporates the sound and motion of turning pages – placed in relationships and analogies with other actions – and the moving of birds’ wings in flight. This is not the middlebrow idea of film as purely narrative-bearing text. It is Mallarme’s concept of the book, the Proustian notion of the book. It is its ultimate realization, par excellence, and by far the most apposite. The films of David Gatten, which deeply engage with the idea of the book, the history of books. These are works that require different modalities of reading/touching words and saccadic rhythms involving different velocities of hyphenation and partial retention and compound phrases through the softest of collisions.
It is largely through this phenomenon that we confront the everlasting mystery of the silent voice, the “little”’ voice inside each one of us; an imagined external voice that reads to us quietly, that is us but seems to be another’s. But this voice is not exclusively yours nor the voice of the author nor the voice of a personified stand-in for somebody who may once have read to us the most thrilling book in the world, somewhere in our long-ago childhood. It just is.
Night Tide, as much as any work in any canon, is guided by that voice; from which a strange, and strangely hushed, invitation steps forth and lingers in the air; beckoning you to come live above a merry-go-round in Venice Beach, of all places, partake of breakfast with a hot sailor and a hotter mermaid, spend endless hours with an old rummy sea captain, listening to the strange tales behind the morbid souvenirs of his life.
If Curtis Harrington had not had the ruined mall of hell unveiled to the world in 1905 as Venice of America as a setting for his occult fable, he might have been forced to build it himself. In American cinema, luck smiles like this on an auteur only rarely. Certainly no studio-bound artifice masquerading as urban grotesquerie could have been more perfect, more just. It had started life decades before as the dreamscape of a globe-trotting Conservationist and real estate developer named Abbott Kinney, who intended it from the first as a wellspring from which Mankind’s Betterment would emerge, finding rare inspiration: a place for the children of Manifest Destiny to elevate their minds before their first taste of imperial conquest had worn off.
But as a would-be aesthete on the culturally barren West Coast of North America, Kinney’s first and greatest mistake, the googly that effectively kneecapped his harebrained improvement project for all time, leaving in its place the freak show Southern Californians know and love (after a fashion), lay in the assumption that his mission could be accomplished simply by emulating, slavishly, the visual landscape of Venice: the old one in the Old World; that by staging an architectural riot of colonnades and pillars and canals, the human spirit would take flight from this, its dustiest outpost. By the 1930s, however, after somebody had struck oil and derricks were springing up like industrial dandelions in a residential area that some were still, with a straight face, calling a peninsula, no amount of boosterism could alter the reality that Venice Beach had fallen into an all-American eyesore; a rotting amusement resort, built on a swamp and now abandoned even by tourists.
“Venice, California,” Ray Bradbury would one day write, casting perspective with an unmistakable degree of awe, “had much to recommend it to people who liked to be sad. It had fog almost every night and along the shore the moaning of the oil well machinery and the slap of dark water in the canals and the hiss of sand against the windows of your house when the wind came up and sang among the open places and along the empty walks.” Death Is a Lonely Business, Bradbury’s 1985 novel, is set in 1949 and, certainly without meaning to, evokes a film that neither states its own origin-story nor seems to imagine anything else beyond its own expressionist visions of a churning sea:
At the end of one long canal you could find old circus wagons that had been rolled and dumped, and in the cages, at midnight, if you looked, things lived, fish and crayfish moving with the tide; and it was all the circuses of time somehow gone to doom and rusting away.
As if anticipating these images, if not literally these words, Night Tide assembles a distinguished skid row where underworld docents by the dozen pop into being with dazzling efficiency. Picture a thousand elves rising with glee to the same, single-minded curatorial task and you’ll have a sense of what is involved here. As a demiurgic force, to put it another way, Harrington does not emerge with this film from nothingness. He had spent two decades fruitlessly bashing his head against the avant-garde wall, West Coast division: a schlockmeister arriviste suddenly gone Hollywood – that is, any imaginable “Hollywood” rude enough to splotch him right in the kisser with flat root beer or leave him smelling of exhaust fumes and gravel, hot from the hissing sand beneath.
The biblical proscription against graven images, the primary source underlying all movie censorship, birthed exploitation films, which were fueled from the outset by “perversity,” the drive to grab that reforming impulse in order to turn it inside out. Film, a presumptive medium of the devil, would no longer redeem but indulge. In his 1990 book Behind the Mask of Innocence, Kevin Brownlow puts paid to this still-persistent myth of unspoiled, lamblike moviegoers in a bygone republic far away, seeking fairy tales and lies anywhere they could find them. His is a staunch chronicle of a period in cinema awash in depictions of every foul condition known to the world outside the movie screen.
Venice, California, already an incongruous interzone, made a suitable target for Orson Welles’s creativity when Universal-International wouldn’t trust him to shoot in a real Tex-Mex border town. With the addition of a fake checkpoint, posters advertising strippers, suitable extras, goats and donkeys, it became one of Welles’s trademark shadow kingdoms, dreamworlds like Kane’s Xanadu (“the stones of many a real palace”), or the world of The Trial, with its courtrooms and offices somehow crammed into a railway station, or Othello, in which various chunks of Italy and Morocco were spliced together, clashing architectures married by match cuts on kicks, glances, turns.
At a key moment in Ed Wood (above), Tim Burton’s hagiographic 1994 insult to the memory of Edward D. Wood Jr., its two intrepid screenwriters concoct a fictitious meeting between the meretricious auteur and the filmmaker he is said (here, anyway) to most admire, Orson Welles. There is no suggestion, as there might have been, of communion between these industry derelicts. Just a quick exchange between two men staring down defeat, drowning their sorrows in a Hollywood gin palace: Wood, due to his arrant lucklessness; Welles, because Universal-International wants Charlton Heston to play a Mexican in his next picture.
It’s a fanciful scene: there for a laugh among cinephiles and little more. Yet it is only when one considers it further that the connection proves real: Touch of Evil’s dutch tilts; its canted angles and violent playground of chiaroscuro lighting; its deranged performances and Latin rock pulse; Welles’s own lumbering, Tor Johnson bulk – all smack of Wood, if ever he’d been blessed with more than two cents and a soupçon of creative judgement. By its final moments, it is less the border nightmare it started out as than some kind of mongrel, South Texas kaiju eiga, as Welles’s bloated police chief staggers around a grimy canal, expiring like a Harryhausen creature in an Elizabethan tragedy, while Special Guest Star Marlene Dietrich, done up in Gypsy garb, intones an epitaph that could have been “T’was beauty killed the beast.” That is, if beauty actually existed anywhere in the universe you just visited.
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Images are screenshots from the films discussed.