Sometimes going to a movie theater can be like entering a dream … a dream that keeps recurring, luring you back into an other-worldly state. Going to the San Francisco 1922 Castro Theatre can summon you into another era, where extravagant beauty keeps surprising you, and where amazing sets and continuous repartee of almost mythological dimension are enrapturing. Then suddenly the film is over. You’ve surrendered to its flowing streams of images and words soaked in the logic of inevitability. Plot — who needed it? For 90 minutes you’ve lived in a truly magical world which makes the so-called “real” world seem wretchedly utilitarian and pathetically banal by comparison. Who, indeed, needs “reality”?
Sunday, Oct 14, 2007, at 2pm we saw two Maria Montez films from 1944 and now realize why Jack Smith (and others, including John Waters and George Kuchar) eulogized her as a nonpareil uber-goddess of the silver screen. Was it a kind of racism that has doomed her to near-oblivion? Her natural nobility of carriage and passionate, perfectly delivered articulation would seemingly destine her for cinematic immortality. Regardless of plot or premise, these two films reveal a feminist role model of unparalled integrity and individuality.
The first, “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” directed by Arthur Lubin, an unhailed genius, seemed disturbingly appropriate as a commentary on the American War on Iraq, with America assuming the role of the cruel Hulagu Khan who conquered Baghdad, and with the forty thieves leading the revolt and dethroning of the Khan. How beautiful Baghdad must have once been, with its rivers, trees, gorgeous architecture, exotic interiors, translucent curtains and some of the most amazing “costumes” and jewels ever created. What a sumptuous parade of fabrics and jewelry, far superior to any anemic catwalk photographed today in Milan or Paris. Judging by this film, designers of today have either lost their imaginations or never had one to begin with.
Maria Montez and her leading man, Jon Hall, are as compelling as, say, Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable in “The Misfits.” (It seems a mystery why Jon Hall never became “famous.”) Turhan Bey, with his 50′s Elvis Presley hairdo, is an amazingly athletic climber and all-around endearing good fella. Gabby Hayes was perfectly transplanted from the American West to the Middle Eastern desert, interjecting just the right amount of absurdity undercutting any potential macho-ism in a situation. This is a world where people once behaved with genuine ethics and conscience, and where courtly manners and decorum rule … yet permit treachery and spying. Can a daughter betray her own father, even if he has behaved like a scoundrel? What happened to genuinely complex moral dilemmas in filmmaking? Instead, today we’re left with the Quentin Tarantinos who depict an ultra-violence whose rationale is as thin as paper… reflecting a sense of morality just as deep.
But Maria Montez … how hypnotizing, how perfectly acted are her roles, how amazing are her facial responses and gestures. We want to stay in her world of total feminine strength-with-beauty forever, as she navigates each moral, ethical and physical crisis with perfect decision-making. What resolve in her face; what intelligence in her eyes, what compassion in her eyebrows — only when deserved, however. She is again, a much-needed role model for today, the age of the schizophrenic, celebrity-lusting, pretend-feminist and pretend-sensitive-and-complex male…
Robert Siodmak’s “The Curse of the Cobra Woman” is equally epic in its celebration of extreme feminine costumery and exotic architecture/interior set design. Sabu was particularly delightful; he would never have had a chance in today’s filmmaking climate. People in the audience laughed when we first get a glimpse of the city on “Cobra Island,” which was obviously a painted backdrop, but to us, the very architecture depicted was worthy of … gasps of delight. Why don’t we have cities as beautiful as this?
For the first time in years, we have that deadly capitalist desire: to want to “own” something — in this case, these two films starring Maria Montez. (We also would like to own “The Coffin Joe Trilogy” which Naut Humon loaned us a few weeks ago — those contains moments of sheer Nietzschean genius and are so extreme as to be beyond belief that the films could ever have been made.) Maybe it’s because we really would like to enter that Maria Montez world and never come back… escape back to a world of simplicity and overwhelming beauty, before the deadly plague of post-modernity, irony and faux sophistication engulfed our dying planet… – by V. Vale, RE/Search founder www.researchpubs.com