Thursday, December 24, 2009

PANDORA'S BOX (1929): A Film For Christmas

Despite a truncated Hollywood career and a submergence into obscurity by the end of the 1930s, Louise Brooks has, probably more than anyone but the great comedians, become the face of silent film, not to mention a personification of the 1920s. If the word "flapper" means anything to someone, the mental image they summon is likely Brooks, though I'm not sure if she actually played one. She symbolizes liberated (if not libertine) youth and female sexuality. Other women wore bangs in the roaring decade, but posterity has decreed that she wore them best. It helped that she survived and re-emerged to tell the tale herself in the 1970s. She called her memoir Lulu in Hollywood, which has things a little backward, since she left Hollywood as a rising starlet to become Lulu in G. W. Pabst's Pandora's Box, her definitive film. Pabst, one of the decade's German masters, made Brooks an icon.

Pandora's Box is a film some people probably think that they know before they see it. Isn't Lulu a classic vamp, a seducer and literal destroyer of men? Doesn't she dance with a woman? Isn't she killed by Jack the Ripper? Well, as for the last, there is a murderer named Jack rampaging in London at the end of the movie, but since the film looks to be set in Pabst's present day he's unlikely to be the 1888 Whitechapel killer, given the actor's apparent age. Meanwhile, Lulu certainly does dance in a friendly but provocative way with a Countess who has a crush on her, but I don't think she reciprocates the crush. And is she the classic vamp, the virtual succubus, the Pandora a prosecutor labels her as who causes all human woe? I don't think you can really say until you see the part of the movie people are least familiar with.

Lulu has shot her husband, a newspaper publisher, on her wedding night, after he threatened to kill her for carousing with some old cronies at the reception. On trial for her life, she's convicted of manslaughter, but he pals put out the lights in the courtroom, surround her and bull their way out of the building. A fugitive, she hooks up with her, er, stepson Alwa (future Dracula Francis Lederer), who overcomes his initial repugnance to reassert his original attraction to her. Using the Countess's passport, they smuggle Lulu out of the country, but get noticed by a shady character who runs a casino ship where the couple eventually take up residence. Alwa becomes a gambling addict and drains the family fortune until the casino operator declares Lulu a commodity to be turned in for a reward or sold to the highest decadent bidder. Another old theatre crony wants to rat her out to raise money for another show. Out of desperation she persuades her lesbian pal the Countess to seduce the theater guy, a big slob, and give him the money he needs so he won't turn Lulu in. The lesbian ends up killing the slob in a hysterical fit, while Alwa, also desperate to buy Lulu's freedom, gets caught cheating at cards. This is the least known and least popular part of Pandora's Box, partly because Brooks loses her iconic bangs (she'll grow them back in the final act) and probably because Lulu here is victim rather than vamp, a possession to be dickered over. It makes you think that that's how the male characters have viewed her all along, and that makes you ask yourself what she's really thought of the men.

The hair is different, but that's Louise Brooks as Lulu turning away from gambling boyfriend Francis Lederer in Act 7 of Pandora's Box. German silents were often divided into little acts in an annoying manner, as if Quentin Tarantino had invented their cinema.

She's clearly jealous when the publisher proposes to dump her for an aristocratic wife, but are her motives as materialistic as his? I don't think so. Sure, she likes fine things and looks good in them, but she doesn't seem to calculate in the same way the men do. She wants a sugar daddy, but in a way she wants the daddy as much as the sugar. With that mentality she makes a poor prostitute in the final act. Encountering the murderous yet tormented Jack, and having no idea of his nature, she responds to an obvious neediness in him with such intensity that it doesn't matter that he has no money. In a way, he has something better: a Christmas candle and a little sprig of mistletoe given him by the Salvation Army. Surrounded by squalor, the ruined Alwa and the last of her old cronies living off her earnings in one of cinema's most wretched apartments, she seems to want unconditional love, and to give it in return, more than money. Though she doesn't know what's coming (and it almost doesn't come; moved by her own neediness, Jack actually drops his trusty knife, only to be fatally aroused by Lulu's own kitchen implement) you get the impression that she'd welcome it if she knew it would make this one guy, this stranger, happy.

Other people have noticed an essential innocence about Lulu, and while that might not be the right way to describe it, there's something more truthful about the character, and Brooks's performance, than the usual vamp archetype. Pandora's Box is often Exhibit A for any demonstration of the psychological sophistication or subtlety that silent film could express, and we're definitely a world away from the extravagances of The Thief of Bagdad. Pabst is a more naturalistic director and his style approaches the "invisible" ideal that puts editing and composition at the story's service to the point where you might forget you're watching a movie. He does this with the fluidity of late silent technique, by comparison to which early talkies from the same year have the finesse of a fall down the stairs. Some critics have argued that silent film could never handle straight drama because it couldn't accommodate dialogue or subtle action, but in the better silent dramas editing can establish a dramatic rhythm nearly as well as dialogue would later. I don't think Pandora's Box would be improved by sound.

So maybe it isn't the ideal Christmas film, but Christmas is in it, and the spirit of Christmas too, in a sad way. Maybe the best way to keep the spirit would be to pause the movie when Jack drops his knife and enters Lulu's hovel, or when they bask in the humble candlelight. That way you'd be giving Lulu a reprieve, or maybe even a happy ending if you shut the movie off for the night.

1 comment:

dfordoom said...

A great movie. The other movie she made with Pabst, Diary of a Lost Girl, is also well worth seeing. And her book Lulu in Hollywood is an absolute must-read.