Friday, November 4, 2016

Nosh 39: 'The Dressmaker,' 'Nosferatu' & More

By David Elliott

Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, served fresh each Friday.

APPETIZER: Reviews, The Dressmaker and Nosferatu
The Dressmaker
When Burt Lancaster went to Italy to play the noble aristocrat of The Leopard, director Luchino Visconti (a real aristocrat) made a disparaging remark about a “cowboy actor.” The lavish production needed a world star, and the two men soon bonded, making a masterwork that includes perhaps Lancaster’s supreme performance (certainly his most subtle). England’s Kate Winslet became a world star with Titanic. She has done a lot of major work. But her leap Down Under to Australia, for Jocelyn Moorhouse’s The Dressmaker, is almost as embarrassing as Aussie-born Nicole Kidman going back for Australia, a national epic with the brain of a demented kangaroo.

Winslet stars as Tilly, a mature, chic seamstress who returns to the dreary, dusty hamlet that made her flee as a girl, falsely accused of a killing. Maybe she fled from the fake sets and agonizing close-ups. This is one of those stagey towns full of hayseeds hell-bent to be very local characters. The prime source is a novel by Rosalie Ham, and ham is robustly served as Moorhouse slathers on yokel yucks. When Tilly starts to win over the deprived women, each a slum of abandoned allure, by making them dresses in the swank style of Christian Dior (this is 1951), the effect is far more weird than funny. It is like watching God’s Little Acre attempt to become Funny Face.

The worst offender is Judy Davis as Tilly’s mother, a bent old stick with a nasty mouth. In one swoop of crazed local color she insults both Gloria Swanson (in Sunset Boulevard) and Billie Holiday (on record). Those of us who hoard bad movie memories will quickly recall another Davis – Bette – mugging up a schtick storm as Apple Annie in Frank Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles. Meanwhile, trouper Winslet keeps trying to hold her dignity and return to the absurdly dubious plot. That includes her seduction by the town stud (Liam Hemsworth), a kind of muscle mattress or shining sperm bank of rural manliness.

This blast of corny, “hip” showmanship (imagine John Waters stripped of wit) was a big success in Australia, where subtle movies are often in short supply. But we Americans shouldn’t be too smug about it. Our multiplexes are crammed with loud junk, and (the Big Show) we are suffering the worst election since 1824, when John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson made our politics seem like a festival of fools.

George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) is coming back into circulation, but that revival is pulp comedy next to F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). It’s 94 years old, or in vampire terms, young. I saw it recently at Eugene’s delightful Bijou Art Cinema, a former church, with a band providing witty music. There is something churchy and even sick-sacred about Murnau’s silent vision (which for copyright reasons turned Dracula into Count Orlac; the production firm shut down to avoid a suit from Dracula novelist Bram Stoker’s widow). Nosferatu, which never dies, is like a ghostly X-ray of the “living dead” myth. In this solemn poem of fear, 19th century Germano-Balkans live in shivering thrall to the cadaverous Orlac. Played as a kind of floating corpse by Max Schreck, he is like a bone siphoning blood.

The plot pace creaks a bit, but the images and special effects remain fresh from a beautiful, feverish, lunar nightmare. No wonder that Werner Herzog had to remake this picture in 1979 with his stellar kink-nut, Klaus Kinski. Murnau’s horror stems not from Halloween chills but Europe’s ancestral fear of plague, as Nosferatu’s swarming army of vermin invades a port city. This film still bites like a plague rat, incurably inhuman.

SALAD (A List)
My selection of Kate Winslet’s Ten Best Roles so far, in order:
Mildred in Mildred Pierce (2011), Hanna Schmitz in The Reader (2008), Rose DeWitt Bucater in Titanic (1997), Ruth in Holy Smoke! (1999), Sarah Pierce in Little Children (2006), Clementine Kruczynski in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Adele Wheeler in Labor Day (2013), Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility (1995), Juliet Hulme in Heavenly Creatures (1994), Tula in Romance and Cigarettes (2005).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
A fringe of imperial purple came early to Citizen Welles, as during the 1938 Mercury Theater production of Danton’s Death. After a night rehearsal, he turned to actor and prop man John Berry “demanding chalk. Berry told him he didn’t know where to find chalk at two in the morning. ‘He looked at me with that wonderful, noble, aristocratic hauteur,’ recalled Berry. ‘He said, ‘Why? Must you betray me too, booby?’ Berry grabbed the fire ax, went downstairs to the men’s room, broke the wall, dug out some plaster, and came back and handed it to him. ‘Thank you,’ said Orson." Fortunately Berry didn’t apply the ax to Welles. (From Patrick McGilligan’s superb Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
“Eagerly I flew from Chicago to Los Angeles, for the press debut of Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. A critic friend had tipped me off: this was no devotional rubbing of Raymond Chandler’s novel. It was ‘pure Altman.’ The balding Midwestern transplant with an old master’s spade beard seemed more daring at 48 than younger insurgents (Ashby, Bogdanovich, Coppola, De Palma, Mazursky, Scorsese, Spielberg etc.) M*A*S*H in 1970 had translated our Vietnam fiasco to Korea, with a liberating cackle. Pauline Kael wrote that ‘people laughed at the profanity. It felt good, like loosening your tie.” (From the Elliott Gould/The Long Goodbye chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available via Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)

DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.
Max Schreck is ready for work in Nosferatu (1922; director F.W. Murnau, cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner).

For previous Flix Nosh meals, scroll below.

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