USA culture

BLAST FROM THE PAST – PAUSE FOR ARGENTINA

ELVIS AND CARY GRANT

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This challenge was issued a decade ago.   It occurred on a rare visit to Sheekeys Restaurant in London.  The food was delicious and expensive.  My friend and I sat on two stools facing the bar sipping white wine as dry and crisp as any I have tasted.  Both well-fed and probably a little self-satisfied we talked about Elvis.  I mentioned the ending of the revised edition of the documentary ‘That’s The Way It Is’ and the appearance of Cary Grant in the after show party.  I described how the two men appeared to swap identities as they talked.  Cary Grant had told Elvis that he had been hot.  Elvis had said that he was probably a little too nervous.  Grant was edgy and modern American while Elvis was relaxed and almost haughty.  His southern accent languished into something like aloof English.  ‘Come, come,’ said my friend.

 

My surroundings were no longer quite so enhancing.   The people around me were different, and I suspected the impact of the bill would be less on them than me and that they would return before I did.   It was neither the place nor the time to compare a flash poor white Southerner to a charming English sophisticate once voted the best dressed man in Hollywood.

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The biography ‘Haunted Idol’ which refers to Cary Grant and not Elvis gives plenty of detail.   Archibald Leach arrived in Hollywood a working class Englishman who left home to join a circus.  No, this did not inspire the story of Pinocchio.  Pinocchio was made of wood, and Cary Grant was anything but wooden.   Like Elvis he used his body to enhance his performance and, again like Elvis, he was versatile.  Elvis could rock and sing ballads, and Grant was comfortable in comedy and drama.  This circus travelled to America, and somewhere along the way Grant left the big tent and became a Hollywood actor.   His early films, especially those with Mae West, reveal a different Grant to what emerged later.  Grant is no less confident but instead of the superior sophistication we have a defiant swagger.  This has been not properly recognised because in these films he also had a tendency to overact.  But his defensiveness and street cockiness are plainly evident, as they are in a more charming way in the classic ‘Gunga Din’ by the great director, George Stevens.  Grant was not ashamed of his working class background but like Elvis he wanted more.  Indeed the two men wanted both authenticity and luxury, or maybe something more complicated than luxury that involved status and personal power.   Elvis curled his lip, and Grant talked as if he was breathing rarefied air.  Both mannerisms suggest an insistence on recognition and acknowledgement.  The more conservative could argue this is why the two men became so haunted.  They simply wanted too much, a consequence of narcissism and its always attendant gluttony.

They paid a price.  Both suffered depression and insomnia for most of their lives and both felt entitled to experiment with ‘medication’.   The word entitled is important.  Grant and Presley were not alone in taking drugs but what they did have in common was a belief that their position or their work entitled them to unusual medication.  Elvis shovelled in pills, and Grant tortured himself with LSD hallucinations.

But they began as working class men and though they had an image that insisted on their separate superiority they were always loyal to their class and its habits.  Both enjoyed the taste of basic cooking.   Elvis liked bacon, mash and gravy, and Grant was so fond of bangers and mash he insisted it was served on Christmas Day.  Undoubtedly, a key factor in the loyalty of both men was their devotion to their mothers.  It is not fanciful to assume this devotion was exacerbated by feelings of guilt.  The mother of Elvis died early when he was in the Army, and the mother of Grant was kept in a lunatic asylum for a large part of his life.  When he was seven years old, he had been told by his father she had died.  He was already a superstar when he learned the truth.  He became devoted but their different circumstances meant they lived very different lives.

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To the European outsider it is tempting to think of Hollywood as a home to the successful but it also represents American privilege – the best parties, the most adoration and, last but not least, the most beautiful women.   This was even better than what happened to David Cameron at Eton and Oxford.  The problem for Elvis and Grant was they could only enjoy the privilege with the knowledge that the women they loved the most had been removed from their lives.    Grant, of course, survived into old age but he was of a different generation, one that never understood excess as well as that of Elvis and his peers.  He also had fabulous genes while Elvis was prone to fat.  That is why the scene at the end of ‘That’s The Way It Is’ chills.  If their identities could merge so easily, how much did chance influence their very different fates?

We will never know.  No two personalities are the same, and the slightest tilt in circumstances will have a significant effect.   The English found it inconceivable that Grant leaped across the English class system in the athletic way he did, and it probably would have been impossible if he had stayed in England.  Being an Englishman in America not only helped his self-esteem but helped others to groom him effectively and helped him to re-invent himself as a creature of our dreams.    Elvis dealt in dreams as well but he did not have the luxury of being the unfathomable alien.  He was merely unfathomable.  Grant secured adoration because of the confusion.  He side-stepped European social class while Elvis rejected racial and gender certainties.   For many Americans this was more uncomfortable than their homegrown idealised Englishman.  Elvis also had adoration but he also had to endure contempt.

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Both men were obsessive about fashion to the extent it generated phobias.  Elvis insisted upon high collars, and Grant could only wear jackets with narrow armholes.   The fashion phobias occurred because they were needed for their alternative identities.  Originally, their identities had been liberating, especially as they had attracted privilege but their mothers had been sacrificed so they were obliged to understand the price that needed paying – loneliness, alienation and self-hatred.   When Grant was told by someone, ‘I would love to be Cary Grant’ the actor replied, ‘So would I’.   Towards the end of his life Elvis met his drummer D J Fontana.  ‘I’m so tired of being Elvis Presley,’ he said.  The statements compliment remarkably well.  It is certainly possible that the remarks reflect different core natures, one maybe haunted but ultimately more sunny.   But if there are differences the remarks are all too illustrative of what they had in common.  What united them and, I like to think they recognised in each other, was success and the price that followed.  In their case the price was demanded because of their social class and their punishing family circumstances.  Elvis found the price to be unmanageable.   Grant endured but with significant cost and pain.

All of which makes me think from time to time of that evening in Sheekeys.  ‘Come, come,’ my fellow diner had said.

We had faced the mirror, two middle aged men who had drunk too much and who had clashed for a brief moment, two middle aged men obliged to think about their past and what made them different.

As Howard Jackson is touring Argentina at the moment, a few blogs from the past will be remembered.  

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

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THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

USA, 2010

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The poster for the movie is smart and mysterious. The cabin is detached from the woods it is supposed to be inside.   It offers a clue to what will make the movie different. This horror movie will have an added dimension. The Cabin In The Woods earned twice the considerable amount of money it cost to make and received critical acclaim. An inevitable sequel followed. The movie demonstrates originality and intelligence. There are some witty lines of dialogue, and serious ideas about both horror movies and the limitations of the modern world exist behind the mayhem. The movie is misanthropic and, despite the humour and wit, informed by despair. Those who like the film are entitled to the distractions it offers. They laugh at smart in-the-know jokes and feel gratified because they have identified the serious themes. Some of us, though, are not so easily flattered, and the success of Joss Whedon depends on audiences that are susceptible to flattery.

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Many years ago the film critic in Punch magazine asked, ‘how do you burlesque a burlesque?’ He was talking about the James Bond films of the sixties and the various send-ups that followed.   Most of these spy spoofs have been forgotten. The movies were limp and tedious. More important the humour in those films was irrelevant. The jokes were already in the original Bond films. Absurdity has existed in popular culture and entertainment for over three thousand years. What appear to be cheese and corn to one generation were previously recognised as audacity and irony by others. All we have to do to understand this is read Homer and Shakespeare. Not every attempt at audacity and irony succeeds. The level of success helps define quality but views regarding what is tolerable absurdity change. The impossible antics of superheroes of today would be laughed at by a mediaeval audience if we could find one.

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Although completed in 2010 The Cabin In The Woods appeared in cinemas in 2012. Scream director Wes Craven had already exposed the routine formula behind horror movies fourteen years earlier in 1996.   The jokes or point had been made. One of the attempts at humour in The Cabin In The Woods is embarrassing and crude.   The typical bulky handsome hero suggests that the four college friends separate to cover more ground in what is a small cabin. The joke is that this always happens in horror movies. Instead of staying together the victims part and allow not only the monster to kill them one by one but also the proliferation of set pieces. The problem with the scene is that the joke is several decades too late. Hitchcock managed the trick of separating the victims in Psycho but he had a smart scriptwriter. When the overrated Alien arrived in 1979, we were already familiar with the cliché and the device.

The script of The Cabin In The Woods was written in three days. This is not necessarily bad. The audacity that genre entertainment needs is often inspired or facilitated by contempt. Take a potboiler too seriously and it will become leaden and stodgy.   But two people worked on the script of The Cabin In The Woods. The moment that calls for the group to separate, and a few others, should have set off alarm bells. Writing in three days the script of a film that has had blockbuster appeal requires talent but even the gifted writer benefits from having the time to become acquainted with his characters and plot. If the writers are not engaged with the story, it is no surprise if it fails to involve those who are interested in something more than sarcastic spectacle. There is also something distasteful about spending $30m on a film that satirises the efforts of filmmakers who had a fraction of that budget.

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The Cabin In The Woods is a deliberate and textbook example of postmodern culture. The movie has an original concept and approach but avoids original moments. Instead, Joss Whedon creates a kaleidoscope jumble of clichés and familiar moments. This is not a criticism. Not just horror movies are targeted, and there is some reward in identifying the various references, elements and genres.   What The Cabin In The Woods lacks, though, is a cohesive whole. The movie feels like two films tacked together, the old spooky dark house in the first half and the dystopian technological nightmare in the second.   Each section has a different objective or target and neither is given enough attention.   The characters and the movie leave the old dark house too soon for it to be a satisfying examination of horror movies.   Compared to what other filmmakers have achieved with old dark houses the satire in The Cabin In The Woods is underdeveloped.   We are familiar with the caricatures and their predictable fates. This is okay but their premature demise is not.   As in Alien, the moments of slaughter appear as sudden shocks rather than the conclusion of scenes of suspense.   There is humour in The Cabin In The Woods but most of it is confined to the dialogue. The visual potential of horror is considerable, which is why it attracts young and ambitious directors ready to demonstrate cinematic style.   In The Cabin In The Woods the best visual effects exist near the end of the film.

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The climax is a dystopian nightmare that precipitates an Armageddon. Compared to The Cabin In The Woods the ambition of Westworld is modest. Nothing can justify an apocalypse but before we are doomed there are brief pleasures. The insert from Japan is clever. Whedon takes a sly dig at Japanese horror movies and the need of those directors to feature innocent schoolgirls. The corridor shots inside the computer centre after the widespread slaughter confirm how the human imagination is degraded in a world designed to provide gratification and little else. The descent of the elevator down to the technological hub and nerve centre is also very fine. The violence is restrained because the monsters are trapped behind glass walls. The journey is haunting rather than violent and it is very sinister.

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The Cabin In The Woods is not the only film to invite us to watch another audience and its creation. For the structure to succeed, though, there needs to be more than scattergun fun and jokes that most of us are primed to expect. Yet despite the second rate mockery The Cabin In The Woods does not feel like self-indulgence. If anything, the movie suggests atonement by Joss Whedon for some of the escapist nonsense that has brought him fame and wealth. The final scene, which is about as unhappy as could be imagined, reveals the hidden truth about the fascist fantasies that Hollywood and Whedon have called action movies. In a contest between superheroes and super villains decency and humanity will be found not amongst the supposed good guys waging battle but off screen amongst ordinary and undistinguished people. This is more than whimsy. Amidst his atonement Joss Whedon shares his misgivings about the modern world. The Cabin In The Woods is loaded with warnings. Imaginations programmed for sadistic thrills will not be alert to the consequences of their behaviour. The final murder in The Cabin In The Woods is ignored by the spectators inside the movie.   Technology also makes us remote from human feeling. The bureaucrats and technicians place bets on outcomes rather than worry about the fate of human beings.   Thanks to technology the corporate world can hide behind machines and secret algorithms.   The technicians in The Cabin In The Woods are the new unapproachable secular gods. Faced with their power, old-fashioned heroism, as the two survivors realise, is futile.

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Horror movies are conceptual and have the virtue of teasing out the hidden neuroses of human beings. But the sadistic taste for mindless gore that exists amongst some horror fans cannot be denied.   Nothing exposes our double standards more than our attitude to physical pain in our neighbours.   We can be sympathetic but pragmatism about suffering and stoicism is for other people. Right now the utilitarian politicians that run the world have decided to escalate the conflict in Syria. A few of the powerful decided that bombs and casualties were needed to make a point to other powerful people. These decisions could mean a lot of innocent Syrians will experience additional physical pain and premature death. Those making the decisions may have to risk a disadvantage in future meetings with rivals but they will, of course, be immune to any of the physical pain. In their world of bulletproof limousines and obsequious lackeys any discomfort is minimal for these self-imagined good guys. The rest of us in the West may not share the luxury of our masters but, like the bureaucrats in The Cabin In The Woods, we have the benefit of watching the suffering of others on large TV screens.   Some of us object to the creation of violent conflict in remote lands but many of us fail to sustain our protest. Others, often middle-aged males, respond with enthusiasm to the prospect of a battle that will not involve them.   Nothing adds to the spectacle on our screens quite like violence.   Escalation of the Syrian conflict means more people will die in a country in which there has already been unnecessary death and carnage. Some TV viewers, though, will open cans of beer and cheer.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.