From The Archive: Style Through A Hollywood Lens By Tony Marcus
I am wondering if Hollywood is failing to produce images of fixed, immortal style. I make a list from recent films. I want images that hold against the flow of modern data. I like Gwyneth Paltrow in The Royal Tenenbaums, Carla Azar in Frank, Brad Pitt in Killing Them Softly, and feel bound to mention Amy Adams in American Hustle in what I believe is Halston (or inspired by Halston).
I was ready to dismiss X-Men but I have seen stills of Hugh Jackman in a vintage 1970s leather jacket – like Pitt in Killing Them Softly. Dressing and looking like Pitt in Killing Them Softly makes sense. Pitt looks great in this film: combed-back hair, black shirt, tight black leather jacket. For a long time he has worn this look off-screen as well. “He had that look already,” said the film’s costume designer Patricia Norris. The jacket, she added, was also his, from before the film.
The look is retro. Killing Them Softly is taken from a 1970s book – a hard-boiled world of jail, organised crime, bars, guns, gambling. I guess it’s reassuringly masculine. There must be a female character in the film, but other than the prostitute dismissed by James Gandolfini, I can’t remember one. The sunglasses that Pitt wears – the gold-framed Aviators with amber-gradient lenses – they are memorable.
Ryan Gosling in Drive has potential. Certainly the white-gold Patek Philippe and Dorothy Gaspar gloves are great. The satin jacket is difficult to wear but the icy masculinity is appealing. “Los Angeles is a fairy-tale place built on fantasy,” said Gosling, “so we made it fairy-tale land and we tried to make the Driver a knight. What we wanted was a violent fairy tale of a guy who drives around listening to music at night because that’s the only way he could feel anything. A guy who’s seen so many movies that he’s turned himself into his own superhero and has made his own superhero costume.”
In Drive we have a knight who battles dark forces to save a girl. In Killing Them Softly we have a knight who kills people (mainly helpless, weak people) for money. The film ends with a brilliant – and deservedly famous – speech in which Pitt declaims that America is not a society but a business. It’s a political moment, a campaign speech. The sentiment is so hard and clear it is beautiful in its intensity. I can see why this appeals to men, why men would want to be like these characters and inhabit these roles.
These stylish, deadly men are victories for Hollywood. I am struggling with women. I liked Paltrow in The Royal Tenenbaums. She wore heavy black eye make-up with a cheap tennis dress and Fendi fur coat. Like a Self Service fashion shoot. And chunky brogues. The finer points of her character escape me but I remember that she wrote, was troubled and chain-smoked. I would not take her as “aspirational” but she appears to have a following.
I also liked Elena Anaya in Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In. In the best scenes she wore a JPG bodysuit and radiated purity. Although her character was not biologically female. She was a young boy surgically remade as a beautiful woman. Which places her in a category of androgynous, queer beauty.
Anaya said Almodovar asked her to watch vintage Hollywood films. “He had me watch Double Indemnity to show this energy that those beautiful actresses had back then. They were femmes fatales who had strength that radiated without moving their faces – or any muscles in their face.”
Almodovar aligned her with Hollywood tradition, with Double Indemnity star Barbara Stanwyck and Billy Wilder, who directed and wrote the screenplay with Raymond Chandler. I wonder if Almodovar has a better take on 2014 than Pitt or Gosling and Adams because he reassigns gender. Those 1970s films have a heavier, more fixed gender. But reassignment is one of the issues of now. It seems to be “trending”. Or “hot”. It’s a flashpoint between the old world and an emerging world. It’s not as common as getting tattooed, but I guess it’s coming.
The co-director of The Matrix Larry Wachowski has reassigned his gender; he is now Lana Wachowski. In a recent interview Wachowski discussed the reassignment. “I know that many people are dying to know if I have a surgically constructed vagina or not, but I prefer to keep this information between my wife and me.” I can’t imagine a 1940s or 1950s Hollywood director saying such a thing. There is gender reassignment in Hollywood but outside of film. Warren Beatty and Annette Bening’s daughter has spoken about becoming Stephan Ira Beatty and his new identity a “gay trans man”. I imagine he/she will be an object of intense curiosity to 13- and 14-year-olds everywhere (Stephen came out and “transitioned socially” when he was 14).
I am still considering Hollywood women. I like Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive. She wears her red dress and red lipstick in a way that is 1940s Hollywood. She is a reflection of Rita Hayworth and one of David Lynch’s legion of damned women – there is something unearthly about her – as if she is already dead. “I thought it [Mulholland Drive] was the story of Hollywood dreams, illusion and obsession,” said Harring. “It touches on the idea that nothing is quite as it seems, especially the idea of being a Hollywood movie star.”
Mulholland Drive is full of scenes that are about Hollywood. And also sleep and dreams. And mirrors. These are all keys to its meaning and its beauty. Lynch has said he understands the echoes and regressions of Los Angeles: “I love the feeling in the air that I sometimes catch of old Hollywood.”
Both Lacan and Freud noticed that children identify with visual images. By looking into mirrors, at other children and at adults, children learn to walk, to use their bodies and faces. Children are particularly drawn to images that offer the “promise of wholeness and completeness”, says the psychoanalyst Darian Leader.
This “wholeness and completeness” is Pitt in Killing Them Softly. Also the seamless Margot Tenenbaum. As adults we are also drawn to images, says Leader. We become who we are by watching and imitating others. “Far from being picture-capturing devices,” he says, “humans are perpetually being caught by pictures. An image, or picture, is a human-capturing device.”
I also like Azar in Frank, but the character here is not an actress. Azar plays a drummer in the film but she is a musician in real life. She plays in the band Autolux and also for Jack White. She is quietly cool throughout the entire film. And dresses well: a lot of black, some denim, vintage-looking items – all tasteful rock’n’roll wear. If I were younger, I would identify with Azar; I can see the value in identifying with someone who has talent and self-discipline. This is the source of her attraction.
I can find more value in Azar than Pitt in Killing Them Softly. It’s not great that such a clean identity is given to the character of a murderer. I must watch Gosling again as a schoolteacher in Half Nelson. I also wonder about people who grew up before film and television. Who did they identify with? How did Picasso and Duchamp dress and imagine themselves?
My parents’ generation learned how to smoke cigarettes from watching films. I don’t know if it is the role of cinema to create identities for us or if this just happens. And I wonder if Hollywood is failing – lagging because it is dealing in images of superheroes and images from the too-distant past, too faraway to be useful.
What kind of city is Los Angeles? A city of infinity pools. The films of Lynch say it is malevolent and occult. The books of Chandler describe LA as a place of dark nights, silent cars, heavyset thugs, impenetrable mansions, silk dressing gowns, porcelain skin, opium and murder. He watches a woman in The Big Sleep
“She got up slowly and swayed towards me in a tight black dress that didn’t reflect any light.”
What is that has no reflection? Something magical. And dark.
Text by Tony Marcus
Taken from the L.A issue of 10 Magazine, no. 52 Autumn 2014