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David and Lisa, The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, Ladies They Talk About, and Forsaking All Others

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<em>David and Lisa</em>, <em>The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On</em>, <em>Ladies They Talk About</em>, and <em>Forsaking All Others</em>

David and Lisa (Frank Perry, 1962). I had the asinine lyrics of Paula Abdul’s “Opposites Attract” running through my head for much of Frank Perry’s 1962 career-jumper: Lisa’s speech patterns are Dr. Seussed, David doesn’t like getting goosed, but when they get together it just all works out. Art houses loved the film when it was released, but if it had come out a few years later maybe more people would have recognized it for what it essentially is: an unconscious parody of Bergman’s fashionable miserabalism (of course, what does it say that its original poster art—a composite of Keir Dullea and Janet Margolin’s faces—anticipates Persona’s own?). A few great angles here and there, none more striking than Dullea’s face. The actor’s visage was the subject of a 1999 Salon article titled “The Face That Launched a Thousand Trips” by Amy Reiter, who credited Dullea’s all-American blandness with giving 2001: A Space Odyssey its humanity. I don’t disagree, but not since Joan Crawford have I been so conscious of an actor’s mug undergoing such a dramatic transformation in so short a time span. (Noel Coward was certainly on to something when he quipped on the set of Bunny Lake is Missing, “Keir Dullea, gone tomorrow.”) Perry’s only real stroke of genius is understanding the implications of Dullea’s gorgeous Aryan-ness, allowing it to cast a fascistic, psycho-sexual pall over David and Lisa’s more or less ludicrous proceedings. The Fuhrer would have loved this one.

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (Kazuo Hara, 1987). Kazuo Hara’s famous “kamikaze documentary” is a two-hour slap to the face. A ferocious study of obsession, the film locks on to Kenzo Okuzai, a survivor of the battlefields in New Guinea during WWII, and never lets go—watching as he pokes, prods, manipulates, and ass-kicks retired military men into revealing their complicity in the deaths of two men possibly cannibalized during the war. Okuzai, a fierce anti-authoritarian, would probably have eaten his own arm if it meant getting to the truth. It’s no surprise that Michael Moore reveres this film, but his snarky attacks on his subjects are not the same as Okuzai’s scare tactics. Though self-serving like Moore, Okuzai risks considerably more, and Kazuo Hara uses his subject’s lunacy to shape an intriguing commentary on the dependability of memory and the role of the filmmaker as a character in the drama he or she documents.

Ladies They Talk About (Howard Bretherton and William Keighley, 1933). When they talk about Barbara Stanwyck, it’s her saucy pre-Code escapades that usually come up. This one is essentially a dry run for Baby Face, with Stanwyck as some tramp who goes to jail for assisting in a bank robbery. Predictable stuff, right down to the requisite redemption scene, though it is good for a number of risqué lines and one or two cat fights that last all of one second thanks to Stanwyck’s fierce soccer punches. More depressing is the rather frequent sight of blacks shivering in terror and grinning for the camera whenever whitey causes a ruckus or walks into the room, a minstrelsy that lives on in the work of Cuba Gooding Jr. and Raven Simone.

Forsaking All Others (W.S. Van Dyke, 1934). F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that Joan Crawford was the epitome of the flapper, though you wouldn’t know it from this uninteresting W.S. Van Dyke comedy. Even the typically irrepressible Billie Burke feels suffocated by the flailing machinations of a banal swapping-lovers storyline. This is one of those early Hollywood films where the action slips into inexplicable fast-motion whenever a car is going to hit a tree or someone is about to be thrown from a bicycle into a muddy ditch. The film’s desperate excitement seems to have been concocted entirely in the editing room. Call it This Side of Inferno.

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.