Saturday, March 05, 2005

Fuzzy Marble: '50s versus '60s

pk is nearly as proud of being behind the times in some matters, way behind, as he is of being ahead of the times in his pet interests, way ahead. March 2005 I decide to catch up on some Roger Corman: namely his 1964 The Mask of the Red Death. In no time I'm annoyed by a too cute for anyone's good redhead,
Mask of the Red Death
Francesca (Jane Asher).

pic missing, sorry, I'm looking for a substitute:

Mask of the Red Death

This black and white still, shared with Vincent Price, shows neither why I found her too cute nor what annoyed me, but perhaps it will recall the movie to those who know it. I'll try to detail what I mean even for those who don't have current acquaintance with the movie, but it's no substitute for a lecture theater with a pause button. The oxymoron of my title attempts to suggest my subject in two words; now I'll take it one facet at a time.

When others were watching Roger Corman, listening to the Beatles, following baseball, pk was sacrificing his immersion in jazz for too much Elizabethan literature. In those days I even more avidly read gobs of Marshall McLuhan. Indeed the Beatles were illustrating McLuhan's point that our TV culture had passed from the hard-edged visual imagery of slick magazines and the silver screen to the cartoon-empty lo-res fuzz of the tube. In the 1950s Hollywood cast its starlets in brasiers made of plaster: look, but don't touch (or you'll bruise your fingers, fracture your pecker). Doris Day's outline would cut like a knife. Her hair could be silhouetted without missing a single stray. I myself wore a hair gel that was like glue, my pompadour hardened into something like cooled sugar drizzle. Come 1964, come the Beatles, and everything, magazines, the movies, turned to fuzz: long hair, frizzy. The hair may not have strayed, but it did heft: like a bird's nest.
(I never heard of Jane Asher 'till I watched the DVD of The Mask of the Red Death last night. That was one of the times that I pause the DVD to visit, where I quickly learned that the too cute redhead was Jane Asher, that Paul McCartney visited the Corman film set and immediately took up occupancy of Jane's life. (Apparently all four of the Beatles proposed marriage to Jane within twenty-four hours of meeting her, but Paul took center stage.) (She could though have compared hair with any of them.))
I wouldn't want to judge the red of those Asher tresses from The Mask of the Red Death: that film conception, film stock, and processing was false color from the get go.
I swear to you that Jane's coif reminded me of the Beatles (as it reminded me of McLuhan) before I saw the biographical connection. But, if her hair made me think TV age, her face (and how Corman was using it) reminded me of Mad comics' Wally Wood. Specifically, one of the early numbers had a science fiction post-war fantasy where society has become so machine-dependent that its members have all regressed to big baby faces with only vestigial bodies. When the machines break, the infantile citizens are totally helpless – and spider webs grow from wall to eye. Whatever Disney learned about rendering Mickey Mouse ever more juvenile, Wally Wood also knew. And Roger Corman uses Jane Asher as a huge-eyed infant (innocent as in Experience makes no impression on me): with big hair and jutting '50s plaster boobs.
If only she could have acted as well as "looked," her part at least of this garish, absurd movie might have worked.

OK: that's the "fuzzy" part of my title; but I've also just hinted at the "marble" part. Information is difference, significant difference: "any difference that makes a difference." [Bateson] You look at Tom Cruise's face and you instantly know, in your innermost fibres, that his face is more normal than any normal face you've ever seen: more ideal: therefore, attractive. You look at Denise Richards' lips, and you know those are big lips, yet still symmetrical, beautiful: irresistible. Looking at those lips any male can "see" how her bottom must feel to the hand.
In shot after shot Corman shows Jane Asher's breasts as more perky than any breasts have any right to be. Gravity is cancelled in the area of her chest.
Now I know that photographers for the skin magazines have an arsenal of tricks to give merely real human boobs the illusion of lift. They Scotch-tape the tits to the shoulders so they'll seem to float, then erase the tape from the negative. That's one trick. But what does Hollywood do? Above I tried to suggest that area of the filmed illusion business with my exaggerated metaphor of "plaster" brasiers.
This movie shoves two sets of mammaries in our faces from beginning to end – Jane's are always covered, she's a nice girl; Juliana is always low cut, busting out. In a scene well on in the movie, Juliana is having a nightmare, a satanic visitation, something, and we watch her boobs move through the sheerest material. Breasts like that, the film cannot be Horror (or, it couldn't be "Horror" without them!) But Jane? No. Her lift is rigid, ridiculous, impossible; but also impossible to take your eyes off. No breasts ever looked like that.
(Especially not Jane Asher's. Having searched for the above photograph, I now have a sense of the real actress: an attractive enough looking woman who does not look like the Francesca character!)

So that's why the film's Francesca annoyed me: I saw a (to me) unpleasing contradiction between the '60s hair and the rigid, ridiculous '50s bust. The damned thing is those '50s breasts, however spectacular looking, also look like they'd feel terrible: like the kid disappointed in feeling up the statue in the museum: it's just marble!
If I watch more Corman I'll keep my eyes open to see how he treats boobs in later movies. I bet he'll let them get fuzzy too: at least as the '60s progress.

PS: I assure you that it wasn't merely overlapping / "contradictory" periodicities that annoyed me about the Francesca construct, and Francesca was the far from the only thing annoying about the movie. But to stick with Francesca: she and her fellow peasants are indignant at Prince Prospero's cruel tyranny, yet having accompanied him to his castle she parades about on his arm as though she were his willing date. Prospero utters unending threats against one and all: Francesca's lover and Francesca's father will have to duel to the death. Francesca's big round eyes and symmetrically infantile face express annoyance more than blood-outrage. Then Prospero announces that he's having her lover and her father drawn and quartered: she receives it as though he's noticed that it's beginning to sprinkle outside. Meantime, Juliana brands the exposed top of her own breast, with an obliquely upside-down cross: "the mark of Satan." Francesca sees it. Now she's truly outraged. "Prospero did this to you?" Drawing and quartering is OK. Maybe Francesca simply didn't know what the words mean. She visits the dungeon where she's merely revolted by the ubiquity of torture ... Ah, but a self-inflicted mark on a breast: now she's ready for revolution.

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