October 14, 2009
la bohème (1926)
Have I never noticed Gish before? I suppose I have (what else but Gish to love in True Heart Susie (1919)?), but all her minute girly gestures struck me hardest here (perhaps because the picture does not have much else going on...). Gish, you intrigue me.
There are things that both draw me to and repulse me from hardcore Woman's Pictures like this. There is something wonderfully compelling about classical, honest tragedy on film, something beautifully perverse about pretending to sacrifice one's life for love. But why is a woman sacrificing for a man, especially one as boring as John Gilbert? Sure he cries and repents at the end, but he's still soaking up her glory, unforgivably forgiven for his earlier jealous thrashing. Not a fellow worth dying for.
And yet... No, Gish dies for vanity. She dies a woman's dream, a martyr for her man, a virgin saint who cares nothing for herself and everything for her love. To project yourself as a martyr -- is there no better way to please your ego? To satisfy your vanity? I suppose this is the ultimate appeal of the Woman's Picture; housewives weep as they imagine their own sacrifices embodied by Gish. Women die for love, men for courage, intellectuals for wisdom. We all die for vanity.
The early Hollywood perception of artists is, in many ways, odd, perhaps mostly naive. There seems to be no reason (save perhaps fidelity to the source material) for this film to be set among artists, except to exploit the cliche that they are poor and starving (which is a major impetus for the characters, after all). Disappointingly, the film only lightly suggests that artists live without much regard for broader social norms (another favorite cliche; see: Design for Living (1933), a much more satisfying bohemian portrait), and, beyond the first 15 minutes, the film seems to avoid references to art altogether. If one is to set a film in the Latin Quarter (even if it is to be a hardcore Woman's Picture), one ought to have some fun with it.
And Edward Everett Horton as an artist? Wrong, wrong, wrong. And so right! (Again, see: Design for Living.)
Back to Gish: what to make of the innocence fetish? She is eagerly fetishized by the camera, but instead of a sexual body (today's norm) it's a virginal face. I had never thought about it before, but this is really off-putting. I would rather ogle legs than innocence, knowing then at least how I feel about the image; but a Gish close-up is an uncomfortable mix of the filthy and pure, the sexual and impotent. She is the virgin whore. Angels are masturbating to her image. This is too much for me. Must the camera linger over her features? Must light caress her shape? Must men always fall at her feet?
And yet... Gish, you intrigue me.