Good Cinema: And God Created Woman (Dir: Roger Vadim, 1956)

Amidst old school Hollywood epics like The Ten Commandments, Giant, and the ridiculously painful – and painfully sterile – Oscar winner Around the World in 80 Days (possibly the worst film to net the prize), American Cinema was going through a cultural shift in 1956.

We learned our children were dangerous (The Bad Seed), commies could be aliens from another planet (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), and family favorites Doris Day and Abbott and Costello were capable of dialing down the laughs and cranking up the tears (The Man Who Knew Too Much and Dance With Me, Henry, respectively). Even the musical was rife with controversy, directly dealing with domestic violence (Carousel) and slavery (The King & I).

The movies were also dripping with sexuality. Written on the Wind gave us infidelity, abortion, and female sexual aggression.

Baby Doll positioned Carroll Baker as the untouchable teen bride of Karl Malden.

Bus Stop revealed a post-Actors’ Studio Marilyn as a “dance-hall” girl who flees a proposition of marriage (or an abduction, as it were) because she doesn’t feel worthy of domesticity…

 …while The Girl Can’t Help It tries to convince us that buxom Jayne Mansfield wants nothing more than just that.

And then there was Brigitte Bardot.

 Quite possibly the most beautiful woman to saunter in front of a lens, French model/actress had appeared in numerous films before husband Roger Vadim (who wed her when she was a mere 15) cast her in his feature debut. And God Created Woman follows the freewheelin’ Juliette as she shimmies from man to man, much to the consternation of her adoptive parents who can’t control her “wild” ways. She carries on an affair with the much older business tycoon Carradine to little satisfaction while pining for Antoine, the handsome sailor in town whose family owns the neighborhood ship yard. When Juliette’s parents threaten to send her back to the orphanage, Carradine propositions Antoine to marry her so she can always stay within his grasp (it is unclear why Carradine can’t marry her himself – chances are she would say no given their interactions and her clear ambivalence towards him, but this is not even set forward as an option; their relationship was no secret by any means so this seems like more of a plot convenience than anything else). Antoine, knowing of her sexually unquenchable appetite, scoffs at this before skipping town. As second best, Juliette marries Antoine’s brother, Michel. At first, they find marital – and sexual bliss – but when Antoine returns, Juliette’s world – and panties – finds itself in a proverbial wad.

There is a side plot involving the selling of Antoine’s family’s shipyard to Carradine to build a casino, but this is a MacGuffin designed for nothing more than to keep Juliette’s suitors in the same universe. The film knows its ace in the hole is Bardot’s “talent” and gives us plenty of it. Vadim sexualizes, fetishes, her from the start, showing us her naked feet (recycled by Kubrick in the opening credits of Lolita) and then her backside…

before her face peers, ironically, from behind a clothesline…

(quite possibly the sexiest introduction to a character since Hayworth flipped her hair in Gilda).

But despite her unabashed sexual liberalism – never seedy in any kind of trashy, American music video kind of way, but more of a matter of fact – Juliette, like Barbara Stanwyck before her, must be punished into submission. After her marital transgression with Antoine, she goes into her favorite bar, gets plastered, and dances to the sexy rhythms of the bongos. As if out of Shakespeare, Carradine, Antoine, and Michel all arrive to “save” – or kill – her. As Juliette reaches a fevered pitch of erotic explosion…

Michel gives us the orgasm with the gun shot – meant for Juliette – that wounds Carradine. Michel plays the good husband and slaps the shit out of his wife in the company of all (I wouldn’t be surprised if Vadim had him actually strike her as some retaliation for her real life infidelity during the shooting of the film).

Bardot’s “acting” is perfect in this scene (and the rest of the film); completely void of vanity or tricks throughout; she simply is Juliette (or Bardot). No tears. No hands raised to fight back. No words. Just a look that is somewhere between understanding, acceptance, and indignation.

What of the title? Clearly a hark to the tale in Genesis, And God Created Woman, is told through the pen of “Adam” despite being told through the eyes of “Eve”. We are supposed to align with Juliette throughout, but Vadim makes his statement quite clear in the finale as Michel drags her off to their home post-beating, presumably with the balance of power back in “Adam’s” hands. Could this be his own frustration with the power of Bardot? Or all of mankind’s frustration with the power of women everywhere to get them to eat the apple?

Good Cinema: Saturday Night at the Baths (Dir: David Buckley, 1975)

Bathhouses were a frequent haunt of the sexually liberated gay man in the ’70s. Based on the “decadence” of Ancient Rome, bathhouses were essentially part club/part hotel where men could meet for dancing, drugs, entertainment, camaraderie, and anonymous sex. And, yes, sometimes even actual bathing. Some establishments – like Bette Midler and Barry Manilow’s old stomping ground, the world famous Continental Baths in New York City, opened in 1968 in the basement of the Ansonia (the future home of the acting college AMDA) – even had a giant waterfall. Many bathhouses closed during the emergence of AIDS, much to the consternation of many gay men who took it as a middle finger to return to their closets, but many new baths, like Flex in Los Angeles and West Side Club in New York City, remain open to this day.

Saturday Night at the Baths follows piano player Michael (Robert Aberdeen), his girlfriend Tracy (Ellen Sheppard), and his openly gay boss at the Continental Baths, Scotti (Don Scotti) on their sexual “awakenings.” Straight from Montana, Michael hides behind his homophobia, despite readily admitting to a gay dalliance in college. The film is littered with obligatory “faggots,” both as pejoratives and badges of honor, and makes no attempts to hide the inevitable finale of Michael and Scotti’s consummation. Indicative of the times and its mores, Tracy not only shrugs off this revelation, but has been almost encouraging it the whole time. The best acted moment in the film comes from Sheppard before a potential menage a trois; her face spells complicity, titillation, and finally, reverie.

Baths deals with its fluid sexuality through a European sensibility of freedom, void of American judgements (although apparently a homosexual nude scene between the protagonists was cut from the American DVD version, despite copious flashes of male flesh throughout the rest of the movie). The film points no fingers and never paints homosexuality as dirty or immoral. Insinuating moralistic dialogue from Michael is met with disapproval and discomfort while Scotti is seen as the kindly homosexual meant for our affection, but never our sympathy; Scotti nor any gay character is seen as a victim, a major statement in 1975 (or 2012, for that matter).

Completely unknown then and now, even missing from Vito Russo’s excellent treatise of LGBT’s in the media, The Celluloid Closet, Saturday Night at the Baths should be seen not for its filmmaking (shoddy 16 mm stock with shoddy edits with mediocre acting, far from revelatory dialogue, and a pornotastic score), but for its history. Baths is shot in the actual Continental Baths before it was closed down in late 1974 due to low attendance (it would be reopened in 1977 as a straight sex club, Plato’s Retreat). The audience gets a taste of authenticy of what went on, sexual and otherwise, inside these homosexual safe havens of decadence, prior to the barrage of AIDS that changed the gay community forever.

Bad Cinema: Lolita (Dir: Stanley Kubrick, 1962)

The truth is they didn’t. The basic frame work is the same – European moves to America, marries shrew to be close to her young daughter, mother dies, daughter and husband consummate, daughter runs away, husband kills the man who “cheated him of his redemption” – but the novel’s lyricism, shock value, romanticism, and sadness are completely stripped from the film.

Part of this was the fault of the ’60s. Still in the final ashes of the Studio System, Hollywood’s Puritanism – at last eradicated after Bonnie and Clyde and unfortunately revamped in the Age of Reagan – dictated Lolita’s age be raised to high school from Nabokov’s 12.5, dismissing the novel’s main tenant of paedophilia/nymphetdom (“You have to be an artist or a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins…to discern…the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate…”). Whatever discomfort the film’s “central” relationship may have had on its initial audience has all been diluted in a world where we sexualize teens (watch Elizabeth Hasselback’s face when she talks about Justin Bieber and tell me she isn’t dripping). Kubrick’s film also eliminates Humbert’s history of an affinity for young girls or his thwarted love affair with Annabel Lee, making Lolita seem like a fluke, a dirty secret within him that he may not have known existed.

The film suffers in large part because of its choice of director. Stanley Kubrick, while a master at cinematography, mis en scene, and special effects is one of the most austere filmmakers we’ve ever had. Emotion, romance, and human connection are his weakest “strengths” and even in a film full of  award-caliber acting like The Shining, we know they are actors playing parts and never become real people. Lolita is a story so steeped in sexual obsession and love that it requires us to reach into the hearts and feelings of its characters. Adrian Lynne’s remake achieves this, in a stunning performance by Jeremy Irons as Humbert, but loses the novel’s wit in its melodrama, the one thing Kubrick’s version gets right.

Lolita the Film also shifts the novel’s focus away from Humbert’s inner turmoil and Lolita’s precociousness by expanding the almost completely facilitatory roles of Charlotte and Quilty into main characters. But of course this happens regardless of intentionality when you hire Shelly Winters and Peter Sellers to play the parts. Both are so brilliantly cast, so incredibly talented, so vibrantly alive that you wish James Mason and Sue Lyon would die so Winters and Sellers could take their act on the road. This is not meant to demean the performances of Mason and Lyon, but again, unfairly, as comparisons to their novelistic counterparts as well as comparisons to Irons’ and Dominique Swain’s superior performances 35 years later (and Kubrick’s arms-length approach to character), they fall flat as protagonists.

Lolita the Novel is also told entirely from the prospective of Humbert as he chronicles his triumphant despair – using some of the most beautiful prose ever written – that any adaptation would lose the majority of Nabokov’s magic. But a film cannot be a failure on adaptive matters alone. A person should not have to read a novel to understand/enjoy a film (something amplified by Rob Marshall’s bastardization and poor technique of Memoirs of a Geisha – woof). A great book – even an “unadaptable” book – can be a great film if one understands the medium (keep your eyes peeled for the film version of Dave Egger’s You Shall Know Our Velocity!). Lolita fails most because it is just plain boring. If Kubrick had been allowed to make Nabokov’s screenplay, which was the first thing Lolita-related I read and it brought me to tears and shakes, we would have had a dynamite film. If only he had waited until the ’70s..