Thirteen Women (1932): Tempting the Fates

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“They were schoolgirls together and their lives form one chain of destiny, women who believe!”

—Ursula Georgi (Myrna Loy)

Peg Entwistle came to Hollywood because she wanted to be a star.

She didn’t make it.

It’s an old story and a sad one—a tale that really belongs to all of Tinseltown’s lost souls, although none can equal the cinematic coup-de-théâtre with which Entwistle ended her life.

The Welsh-born beauty acted in just one movie before she hurled herself off the H of the HOLLYWOODLAND sign, two days after the film premiered. They say that her ghost still haunts the spot. And Thirteen Women happens to be her first and last movie.

Even without its connection to one of Hollywood’s most famous tragedies, Thirteen Women would stand out as one of the most eldritch concoctions of the trippy pre-Code era. In this horror-melodrama, the power of suggestion drives a group of wealthy young women to madness, suicide, and murder.

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Entwistle gave a nuanced, if brief, performance as Hazel Cousins who watches an acquaintance plummet to her death during a trapeze act. Deranged by the experience and maddened by a horoscope predicting violence and disaster, Hazel stabs her husband to death. We see her clutching a bloody dagger and screaming, under superimposed headlines announcing her crime.

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One has to wonder if the film exerted an insidious real-life influence on Peg Entwistle, perhaps even planting the seed of a dramatic death by falling in her mind. Just as her character seems imprisoned by headlines, Entwistle herself has gone down in history as a shocking episode in movie-land folklore. The fame that eluded her in life was ironically bestowed upon her in death. Did the dark plot of Thirteen Women, in addition to all of her other worries and woes, work some kind of malign spell on her? Did she relate too closely to the film’s theme of self-fulfilling prophecies? In any case, it’s a hell of a coincidence—and only one reason to tune in to this magnificently warped movie.

I consider Thirteen Women one of the most concise, effective nail-biters I have ever encountered. If you’re looking for the antidote to summer blockbuster bloat, look no further than this frightening pre-Code gem.

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Produced by David O. Selznick at RKO and directed by the rather obscure George Archainbault, Thirteen Women admirably truncated a popular novel by Tiffany Thayer. Clocking in at an incredible 59 minutes, the movie manages to sketch a blueprint for every revenge thriller that would follow. The one-by-one elimination of enemies, the grotesquely devised set-piece deaths, the gaggle of mean girls being menaced by their former target, and the ambiguous villain-protagonist will all feel remarkably familiar to modern audiences.

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As you may know, before transitioning to the tame post-Code era with her “perfect wife” image, Myrna Loy played an awful lot of vamps, tramps, and temptresses, often with an exotic flair. The parts usually fell beneath her talents as an actress (and fell within the egregious old Hollywood tradition of blackface and yellowface portrayals, which Loy later regretted). However, Thirteen Women gave Loy the most psychologically rich variation on her Oriental Villainess typecasting. Mixed-race anti-heroine Ursula Georgi has survived things that most of us get the chills just thinking about—and ostracism at the hands of her peers put her over the edge. Jaded, manipulative, and captivating, she’s out to exact retribution on the coven of white society snobs who shut her out of their privileged world at boarding school.

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Once a victim of fate, Ursula takes fate into her own hands. Using her seductive charms and wits to destroy her enemies, Ursula is sort of like a shadowy echo of Lily from Baby Face. Whereas Lily, that other pre-Code female mastermind, destroyed others to elevate herself, Ursula sees that destruction as an end in itself. Maybe she was reading Schopenhauer instead of Nietzsche.

Most interestingly, Ursula doesn’t merely set out to destroy these women—she sends phony prophecies about their imminent doom and effectively pushes them to destroy themselves. By using the name of a famous swami in her warning messages, Loy’s character reveals the strength of Eastern mysticism upon the snotty Caucasian women who had once dismissed Ursula and her culture.

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Ursula’s victims play right into her hands. As one of them wonders aloud, “But the moon does control the tides! And nothing can live without the sun. Why shouldn’t we be controlled?”

Rather than intervening directly, for most of the film, our femme fatale lets the power of suggestion gnaw away at her victims. The hoity-toity finishing school graduates succumb to their own demons—butchering their husbands, causing calamitous deaths, and shooting themselves.

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Thus, Thirteen Women intimates that your average 1930s society belle was concealing some kind of major anguish, rage, or mental imbalance. Perhaps the most disturbing subtext of the film lies in the thought that it doesn’t really take the powers of the occult to make us do awful things to ourselves and to the ones we love; we might do them all by ourselves.

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(Question of the day: would it be worth it to live in the shadow of an ugly death if you got to wear such beautiful 1930s outfits?)

Myrna Loy’s experience as a dancer serves her well in the part of Ursula. The slinky, serpentine physicality that she injected into her role adds to the ominous ambiance of the film. Her sinuous gait and her ability to stand perfectly dead still (to the point where I thought I’d accidentally paused the movie) reminded me of such uncanny villains as Jaffar in The Thief of Baghdad and Lady Asaji in Throne of Blood. We understand that Ursula’s intense hate has transformed her into a being so implacable, so focused that she is almost supernatural.

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Like the return of the repressed, Ursula shows up to expose the cruelty, hypocrisy, and vulnerability of her enemies. Her wickedness, after all, is really just the maliciousness of others reflected back to them. As much as the audience would like to completely sympathize with Ursula’s primary rival, the strongest of the former mean girls—astutely underplayed by a steely but nurturing Irene Dunne—we have to recognize that she brought it on herself. Who’s to blame: the monster or the bullies who created her? I’m particularly enamored with this mirror confrontation shot that seems to visually translate all of this conflict and ambiguity.

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Probing the open wounds of female aggression and racial tension, the plot also sustains a briskly paced series of death scenes and suspenseful set pieces. The film opens with a white-knuckler of a sequence during a death-defying circus act, quickly proceeds to a domestic murder, and witnesses someone being pushed in front of a subway train.

You can also expect a car chase, a woman leaping from a moving train, and an off-screen suicide—I’ve scrambled the order, so don’t worry about spoilers. I would also argue that this film contains one of the greatest, and simplest, suspense scenes of the 1930s, as an adorable little boy tries to reach for a toy ball that’s been filled with explosives. Not for the faint of heart, this movie!

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If we can sense that the adaptation lacks probably the depth of the original, the movie compensates with a major sense of style and a bizarre, magical expressionism. Leo Tover’s cinematography shapes a nightmarish pre-noir world, awash with mystery and imminence.

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Glowing astronomical orbs, glistening fabrics, and inky, low-key shadows all contribute to a feeling that the veil of illusion has been pulled back from reality. We can perceive the cosmic dread that hangs over the comings and goings of the characters, as they meet their destinies… or the end results of their own desires, perhaps.

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When each character dies, a gleaming star suddenly bursts onto the screen and transitions to the next scene. So, are we to assume that humans are indeed the puppets, prone to the indifferent vagaries of celestial bodies? Well, not really, since Ursula can knead destiny to serve her own purposes, pushing people down different trajectories than the stars actually foresaw for them.  Besides, Ursula’s victims actually sealed their fates through their nasty actions many years ago, which we can only assume that they committed of their own volition.

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However, if you pay close attention to the opening shot of the film, a seemingly unrelated image of a train speeding along in the night, you’ll notice it may actually represent the ending of the film from a different angle. In other words, Thirteen Women is carefully constructed for repeat viewing. From the first, the movie foreshadows Ursula’s own apparently predestined death and comes full-circle to this beginning at the very end of the film.

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Thirteen Women thus suggests that what we tend to consider a quirk of fate actually points to a more complex design, a tapestry of free will, unconscious longings, and, yes, some uncontrollable accidents of time and chance.

The fault is neither in our stars, nor in ourselves alone—but it doesn’t help that, all too often, we want to blame the stars.

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Daughter of Horror (1955): In the Shadows

“It stirred my blood and cleansed my libido.” —Preston Sturges on Daughter of Horror

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As I sit down to write this, I want you to know that I’m rubbing my hands together gleefully and cackling like a mad scientist about to unleash some freakish terror upon the world. Because today I’m going to introduce you to one of the weirdest, most disturbing films I’ve ever seen. And I watch Dwain Esper movies for kicks.

Reader, meet Daughter of Horror. She’s the bastard child of Salvador Dali and Ed Wood. Or maybe H. P. Lovecraft and Mickey Spillane. This 1955 avant-garde independent film drags us through the nightmares and misadventures of an androgynous delinquent chick, “the Gamin,” as she ventures from her hotel bedroom to prowl down mazelike streets. Over the course of one night, she’s nearly assaulted by a drunken bum, gets pimped out to a fat man, commits a crime, and slips in and out of many hallucinations. But where can we draw the line between madness and the squalid horrors of reality?

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Directed by the obscure John Parker and written by Z-grade producer/director Bruno Ve Sota (although there’s some debate as to who really deserves artistic credit), this oily, shoestring-cheap horror-noir contains not one line of dialogue. Yep, we’re dealing with a strangely contradictory silent film with a soundtrack. Apart from a few diegetic sounds—essentials like sobs, screams, laughter, and gunshots—you mostly hear a ghoulish atonal score by modernist composer George Antheil, filled with foreboding jazz and the occasional soprano wail.

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And—here’s the real boon—there’s the occasional passage of voice-over narration by none other than Ed McMahon, who intones a menacing, ironic commentary over the violence of the action and the Gamin’s psychotic breaks. From what I understand, the original cut of the film, called Dementia, didn’t have that voice-over, but I like it. Most critics have argued that the narration detracts from the integrity of the film.

I would differ—it’s like a parody of Hollywood’s typically ethereal depiction of schizophrenia or characters who start “hearing voices.” Instead of the ghostly whispers of poetic insanity, the Gamin is haunted by an out-of-control melodramatic TV narration. The voice peppers the film with choice remarks like, “Yes, I am here. The demon that possesses your soul. Wait a bit. I have so much to show you. So much that you are afraid to see.” If I ever start hearing an unseen game show host announcer chiming in to narrate my unconscious, I will know that I’ve finally descended into madness. (I’m expecting that voice any day now.)

The muffled, doom-impregnated ambiance of Daughter of Horror truly escapes words. It digs up a seedy universe that’s at once utterly unreal and much more gritty and recognizable than the sanitized sordidness of most films noirs. Grotesques populate its dark corridors, mutant people who scuttle around in the night, like bedbugs on a cheap mattress.

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The usual mechanisms of character identification grind to a halt. We struggle to form an attachment to the Gamin, since she’s all we have, but she’s inscrutable at best and monstrous at worse. We’re estranged from the Gamin just as she’s estranged from herself. This sense of alienation and neediness, of not being able to relate to the movie in a usual manner, plunges the viewer into a state of ambivalent confusion and unease.

Indeed, whereas film noir tends to lure us in with its smoke-ring glamour, Daughter of Horror keeps us perpetually at an arms length, disgusted but transfixed. It compels us to keep watching out of a balance of sheer unease and shock—from the very beginning, we know, as we do in nightmares, that something bad is going to happen. We’re only partially right. Lots of bad things are going to happen.

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To classify this film as one of Caligari’s children would be to state the obvious; what’s fascinating is how the Gamin fuses the somnambulistic monster, the vile murderer, and the heroine in distress all into one disturbed personality. Freudian overtones also crowd into this dark night of the soul. For instance, the Gamin’s flashback to her ugly childhood with a brutish father and a trampy, self-absorbed mother takes place in a graveyard, no less, which the characters inhabit as though it were their living room.

Although the Gamin’s father died a long time ago, he returns from the grave as a sort of guilt complex incarnate—he appears as a leering patron at a sleazy restaurant and later takes the form of the policeman hunting the Gamin down. Heavy-handed? No doubt, but still powerful and frightening.

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Whereas standard Hollywood flicks incorporated psychoanalysis as a means of explaining away complexes, as a kind of tool to decipher the world and make it safer, Daughter of Horror plunges us into a forest of smirking symbols. In this twisted cosmos, a cigar is never just a cigar.

Though drawn in broad, blown-up strokes, this movie still surprises you with subtle allusions and amusing touches. The generally transfixing cinematography shows what veteran director of photography William C. Thompson (Plan 9 From Outer Space, Glen or Glenda) could do when not saddled with Ed Wood’s trashy, inept vision. The film begins with a shot of a city at night with a flashing sign that reminds me very much of the flashing sign skyline opening of Hitchcock’s The Lodger. After that, we cut to a track-in camera movement that creeps past a flashing HOTEL sign into the cheap rented room of our sleeping heroine, where she clutches the bedclothes in the throes of a bad dream. The movie ends with a parallel camera movement, drifting away from the room, before cutting back to that chasm of starry sky. What fearful symmetry!

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Leer Cam! The camera slips inside of the room where the Gamin is dreaming… then right into her consciousness.

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If the lecherous fat man who picks up the Gamin resembles Orson Welles, as some have noted, the film also references Welles’ style with shots of striking depth, presenting multiple points of interest. In one of my favorite, the fat man gnaws away at a chicken leg while, in the background, the Gamin displays her own shapely legs as a temptation, then sneers when the corpulent creature keeps on chowing down.

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This bizarro gem of a movie not only borrowed bits and pieces from great filmmakers, but also foreshadowed future masterpieces. Those track-ins on the hotel recall the probing high angle shots that you see at the start of Psycho. And you’ll definitely recognize the whole smoky, grungy atmosphere of Daughter of Horror in Touch of Evil—they were both films at Venice Beach, California.

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So, today I’d like to invite you into this forbidding terrain of vast, cavernous spaces and hole-in-the-wall bars, of predatory men and even more predatory women. I offer you a superb, if sometimes clunky, wide-awake nightmare.

This film is in the Public Domain, which means you can watch and download it at the Internet Archive, as well.

When you’re done, please leave a comment and tell me what you think of the movie! 

Getting out of the Boat: Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now

2“Never get out of the goddamn boat. Absolutely goddamn right. Unless you were going all the way. Kurtz got out of the boat. He split from the whole f**king program.”

I’ve loved Apocalypse Now from the first time I watched that orange feathering of napalm burn through lush tropical forests to the lilting, funereal strains of “The End.” That opening shot spoke to me, whispering the truth of how ugly things can be beautiful and how the camera can charm that beauty forth.

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It was like looking through the eyes of another, not through a point-of-view shot, not even through the lens of a different philosophy—but through the eyes of madness, of someone for whom destruction was lovely. I had never felt anything like it. It horrified me, shocked me, inspired me, and changed me. It may have been the first time in my life that I encountered Art, that grand, fearsome, traumatic thing that we hear so much about.

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On the other hand, Black Narcissus refused me any such revelation until it was almost over. Having bought a Criterion DVD at a jumble sale (the poor fool who threw it away!), I played it one lazy morning. For the first hour or so, I liked it, thought it was visually pleasing and stimulating in an academic sense. It wasn’t until Sister Ruth revealed her awful, predatory true self that the movie pulled me into the heart of its darkness.

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The bottom dropped out of reality. I just didn’t expect a pensive, patient little art film to do that to me—to come at me with a rush of cosmic fury and not relent for almost twenty minutes. “Holy ****!” I exclaimed to myself. “Sister Ruth got out the boat!”

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Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now both won Academy Awards for cinematography thanks to the hypnotic, ethereal camerawork of Jack Cardiff and Vittorio Storaro, in 1947 and 1979 respectively. (Both films should have won Best Picture, but that’s a whole other blog post.)

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Above: Jack Cardiff. Below: Vittorio Storaro on location for Apocalypse Now

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Apart from the two movies’ shared aesthetic interest in exoticism, they are extremely different. In contrast to the classically trained, crafted acting style of the performers in Powell and Pressburger’s film, Coppola chose a stable of hardcore method actors. While Black Narcissus seemingly fits into the mold of a women’s drama, Apocalypse Now has claimed an immortal place in the annals of cinematic machismo.

Black Narcissus departs utterly from realism by shooting not in the Indian mountains, but in England—against huge blow-ups of aerial photographs of the Himalayas, brightly painted to striking effect. We all know that the production of Apocalypse Now, filmed on location in the Philippines, mirrored its plot. As Coppola lapsed into the Kurtz mentality and actors started to succumb to the harshness of the environment and the strain of shooting, reality bled into fiction.

Nevertheless, I cannot separate these films in my mind. To me, they’ll always be spiritual sisters. I don’t doubt that Cardiff’s vision for Black Narcissus influenced Storaro’s photography for Apocalypse Now, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

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Fearsome transformations….

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I have seen a precious few films that seem to be aware that they’re in color. I mean, yes, the costumes, the sets, the lighting in most non-black-and-white films have all been carefully selected for their hues and tones, but the emotional powerhouse of color remains untapped.

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Warpaint of different hues…

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Color speaks to us in ways that defy rational thought. Baudelaire once noted that color is the most important element of a painting, because even before we can make out the figures, at a distance, the harmony or dissonance of colors allows us to intuit the essence of the scene.

In my opinion, color needs to “put the zap” on our heads, to paraphrase a few lines of Milius’ brutally insightful script for Apocalypse Now. Seriously—this is why I tend to prefer black-and-white films. Why show me colors unless they’re going to astonish me? Color needs to tell us something, not in terms of symbolism, but in terms of emotion and reaction. Both Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now define dreamlike, vividly colored places, jungles and mountaintops, which not only magnify our perceptions, but also unleash our inner natures.

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Shades of observation: Sister Clodagh and Captain Willard.

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Apocalypse Now is not an anti-war film any more than Black Narcissus is an anti-religious film. Both of them transcend such unambiguous messages to tell us something much more vast about the soul of civilization. Sister Ruth certainly isn’t the charismatic genius that Kurtz is, since men have a cultural outlet for their madness—war—whereas women just get neuroticism. However, these two figures both revert to something primal and frightening. (Eventually Captain Willard does, too.) Sister Ruth and Kurtz split from the program of lies and moral rationalizations that govern the minds of their peers. Rather than persisting in fighting the call of the jungle, they give in. Their madness prompts some of the most fantastically beautiful images captured by a camera. 

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We watch traditions and codes of conduct plunge into a flamboyant psychosis that wasn’t so far away all along. Seductive, unreal colors, enhanced by sinuous camera strokes, hold us captive and enable us to feel the strength of those impulses towards annihilation, impulses that enthrall those who “got out of the boat.”

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As Nietzsche theorized, great tragic art must balance a tendency towards orgiastic self-destructiveness (the Dionysian) and the tonic splendor of appearances and expression (the Apollonian). If Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now both depict the triumph of the Dionysian, of chaos and entropy, they nevertheless uplift us rather than depressing us. They temper our despair in mankind with our faith in art.

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Cardiff and Storaro extensively studied the great masters of painting—the color palette of Narcissus was based in part on Vermeer, and there’s quite a bit of Caravaggio in the way Apocalypse Now uses virtuosic contrasts of color and blackness. The compositional brilliance and luminosity that the cinematographers lend even to scenes of abhorrent violence or confusion strike a balance between these elements to produce cathartic experiences that, for me, have not been equaled by any other films.

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From lips to eyes… and from eyes to lips. Contemplating empty faces (Sister Ruth’s and the face of a Khmer statue) with camera tilts.

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Jack Cardiff had to campaign to get the sort of surreal, opalescent color contrasts he harnessed for a subliminal effect in Narcissus: “I was always fighting with Technicolor [representatives] because they wanted complete realism, whatever that was.” Instead, in certain scenes, he filled shadows with green light and colored the arc-lights slightly blue to suggest the distracting crystal coolness of the skies. Cardiff reflected that few viewers, perhaps one in ten or fifteen, would consciously notice these things, but that the choice would impact the mindset of the audience and contribute to the story.

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In addition to these more subtle manipulations, gathering momentum as the film unfolds, Black Narcissus overwhelms us with exaggerated panoramas of the edge of the world. The screen celebrates the giddy delirium that courses through Sister Ruth as she rings the bell on the edge of the cliff. We experience the rush of that chasm, shown in breathtaking canted angles.

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Later, through the translucent deep blues, febrile oranges, and acid pinks of her freak-out, we feel the terrifying release of Ruth’s transformation into a strange, unnatural creature—part modern woman, part painted devil.

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Kurtz’ poetic insanity penetrates the eerie iconography of Apocalypse Now. The glowing amber quality of light, the oppressive Prussian blue skies, the sulfuric yellow and psychedelic lilac gas flares, the impenetrable greens of the jungle all exteriorize the jewel-like ferocity of his Zen psychosis.

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“We’re all his children, man…”

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Kurtz, this faceless demigod, the diamond who cuts through bullsh*t, realizes that those who win wars must fully embrace “the horror.” But that appalling clarity, that knowledge also rots away at him from the inside out. Captain Willard’s voice-over tells us some of this, but such verbal information would be meaningless if Storaro didn’t paint this decay into every lopsided, eclipsed shot of Kurtz.

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Storaro, referring to his revolutionary use of color shading in Apocalypse Now, spoke of how he used the visuals, especially rich shades of black, to get in touch with the barbaric, “unconscious side” of humanity that Conrad’s novel conjured up: “The heart of darkness that he was looking at does not belong to another culture, another place, but part of our self.”

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Cardiff and Storaro both found intense, wordless ways of representing this slip into a primordial darkness, into a place beyond reason. When Sister Ruth begins literally to “see red” the screen suddenly snaps to pure blue as her rage forces her to lose consciousness.

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The first time I saw it, I though there was something wrong with the DVD, it startled me so!

Similarly, Apocalypse Now gives us an amazing shot in which the camera literally turns upside-down and then right-side-up, and then up-side-down again as Kurtz’ acolytes drag Willard through the mud to meet the elusive Colonel for the first time.

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Cinematography literally means writing with light and motion. Cardiff and Storaro wrote disorientation and temptation into the screen with shadows, with movements, with delicate shadings of color.

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The call of the jungle… Sister Ruth and Captain Willard stalk their prey.

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Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now both dwell in the realm of exoticism, in the amplified Other that’s really just another guise for something flickering within us. These movies let me see Western civilization, the epicenter of my own values and all that I hold dear, transplanted and fragmented into a vibrant nightmare by the prism of madness.

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They also take me full-circle back to the primitive psychic engines of that civilization—Eros and Thanatos, sex and aggression—without asking that I transgress, without asking that I myself get out of the boat.

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~          ~          ~

This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by three of the nicest ladies, coolest movie mavens, and best film bloggers out there, Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club, Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, and Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled. Check out their blogs and this wonderful blog event! Find the blogathon on Twitter by searching the #31Days hashtag.