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Amy and Her Friend

Saturday 9/7/19

Early. Working. I hope to have new book news soon, regarding a volume called If You [ ]: Fantasy, Fabula, F**ckery, Hope, but I need to plow back into the email. I have been unable to face anything, really. It's panic attacks, vomiting, passing out. Composing is all that helps, and climbing the Monument. I have been beaten down into human paste after these long years of this fight and this form of existence. I am putting together other books. One centers on my jazz writings. Another my film writings. Another is a journal of the friendship between Emma and myself. Of course, given the situation I am presently in, there is no one who would want any of these books. Books that could sell millions of copies. As with Meatheads Say the Realest Things (my first novel, though it's not like any other novel). Or Cheer Pack: Stories (this is the one with the fiction from Harper's, the VQR, Commentary, Glimmer Train, a story that The Atlantic accepted and unaccepted, that no one will touch, despite these being my most commercial--I mean, these are the story versions of "Hey Jude," "She Loves You," "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "A Hard Day's Night"--stories; well, Buried on the Beaches is that way, but those stories appear to be--not that they are--a touch more localized).


But I have to keep making the work for when I can say, "because of the situation I am now in, anything I do is going to explode and reach millions." I have to try to have the faith that that time comes. I don't know what the title of the film book will be yet. I know the title of the jazz one, and part of the title of the Emma-Colin one. (A friend, reading these journal pages, said that I must get those writings together in book form, and that struck me as a good idea, a diaristic book of a unique friendship in an age where true friendship is becoming rarer and rarer.)


Four books are out right now. Two--a film book and a music book--will come out next year, at least, if I get my ass in gear. Meatheads Say the Realest Things is done. A sequel is being planned. Hopefully things are a go (especially as I need the money) with If You [ ] and that could come out next year. I'd like to place the essay collection, Glue God, soon. There are now two full volumes' worth of short stories going back to last summer. it's not a long leap from four books in print to twelve. Two Beatles projects for which to finish chapters. Saving Angles: Finding Meaning and Direction in Life's Unlikely Corners is being composed presently. There will be the memoir of Molly and that evil/hell (just as someday there will be a memoir about publishing and what I had to overcome, naming every last name). I invented another form of fiction this week. Some of the readers of these pages have already seen it and I would imagine are still knocked for their loop upon seeing what I did, which is something I did after creating another fictive loop-knocker earlier in the week. I am not in a zone. I am the zone of creation at this point. There has never been anything like this, week in, week out, and there never will be again. I don't care who comes along to enter this world. I will have to begin to go into all of later, though, and many more things along those lines, updating what has gone down over the last month or so. But this is the film excerpt, which will be in Saving Angles. It discusses the idea of identity, which now is a kind of lost idea in a post-identity time, in relation to Halloween, Linus's great pumpkin, and the young girl Amy in Lewton's The Curse of the Cat People. (Side note: The 1940's might be the richest decade for cinema in this country. With that being the case, I think it says something that Curse could easily rest within a top ten list from that decade.)


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The Curse of the Cat People is the Linus version of a horror film. It was released in 1944, produced by Val Lewton, who had overseen 1942’s Cat People. These films were made for RKO, a studio which Orson Welles had pushed to the brink of financial ruin, thus triggering a rebranding. Whereas Welles had been about genius—or so read RKO’s press releases—the focus following his departure after Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, would be on showmanship. In other words, any yob out there could enjoy the upcoming movies, you didn’t have to be smart or arty at all, so come out and experience our product!


This was quite insulting to the audience (I’d maintain that no group of people in American history has ever had their capabilities undersold and underestimated like that of any red-blooded, more-or-less attentive audience) and an artist like Lewton, but so it went. Lewton is one of those producers whom we discuss as a director. Talk about hands on. The 1942 picture to which Curse is a sequel was directed by Jacques Tourneur and shot by Nicholas Musuraca—perhaps the ultimate helmer-and-lenser tandem of the decade—starred Kent Smith as Oliver Reed, who falls hard for Irena Dubrovna, played by the luminous-and-still-primal Simone Simon. She’s an artist who happens to have a thing for cats. That is, they both bring out her sexuality and possessiveness.


The Lewton team achieves its scares with zero special effects. It’s all lighting, silence that fills the space around your personage in ways tantamount to tension mallets being stealthily pressed into service so as to be able to ring gongs more frightfully. Lewton pioneered what was called the Lewton Walk, where a character strolls in silence, the camera moving with them, the viewer ambulating as well, before laying the boom to both. Sometimes that took the form of a bus pulling up at its next stop, as with one of the film’s famous scenes. Bottom line is, Irena gets jealous, there are deaths, Reed has a new lady at the end—Jane Randolph as Alice Moore—and Irena is no more.


But not quite. When Curse starts, Oliver and Alice are married, and they have a daughter around seven or eight-years-old named Amy (Ann Carter as one of the most effective child actors you will encounter). She is teased and bullied by her classmates. Those scenes are enough to make you ache from old memories of childhood politics. She loves nature, slaps a boy who accidentally crushes a butterfly he tried to capture for her. She never, of course, met her father’s first wife, Irena, and it must be said that Oliver Reed is a lesson in how not to parent in this film. He enjoins the child to make friends, faults her when she is unable to, despite her good-faith efforts. His heart is not in a bad place, but his directives are misguided, his parenting a form of victim blaming. The girl, in her way, is confident. She continues to try. She’s also the kind of child who believes that placing birthday invitations in the hollow of a tree—a magic mailbox—will get them to their intended recipients.


She wanders, just as Linus did to his pumpkin patch. Linus is a little older, but these are searchers, young people trying to better understand their identities, find their edges and then work back towards a core. We meet, of course, many people in life, but we also meet ourselves, a dilatory process we can’t rush, which we must heed. Amy’s walks take her to an old house, that kind one is inevitably told is haunted, where she hears the disembodied voice of an old woman coming from a top floor window beneath a gable. A handkerchief tied around a ring flies from the window, a gift from the possessor of this voice—if indeed it has an earthly owner—that Amy concludes is a magic ring. It may well be.


Lewton wanted to call the film Amy and Her Friend, but was overruled by studio brass. Robert Wise—who was Orson Welles’s film editor—handled most of the directing chores, the balance picked up by Gunther von Fritsch. The cinematography once more fell to Musuraca—the cinema’s patron saint of chiaroscuro—and if there is a more beautifully shot American film, I haven’t seen it. The picture has the dreamy sumptuousness of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, and if one of our most highly personal nocturnal reveries could leap from the recesses of our dream-wave psyche for all to see, I think it would look like this. Amy’s friend, as it were, is the returned Irena of Cat People. Or is it her ghost? Or is she what plays out in the mind of a lonely child, a youngster whose journey to embrace her identity involves this form of coping as a means of stabilization in the interim? Irena’s remit could well be that of spirit guide—the spirit of the individual.


She’s a version of Great Pumpkin—but the sort that actually shows up one of those Octobers, what Linus would see and no one would believe he had seen, as no one believes Amy.

She cultivates the relationship with her new friend. This is a quite different Irena. Kind, giving of herself; there is no talk of cats. Simone Simone is backlit by Musuraca such that mahogany-blacks glow as if from a vestibule at her nape and shoulder blades, beams of white light irradiating the foreground, the edges of the frames—particularly in the forest scenes—draped in a style of firefly bunting. We watch an internal world gain external expression. There is constancy from Amy on behalf of her friend, whom she also recognizes as part of herself. The loyalty is symbiotic.


For contrast, there is the relationship between the old woman—who is indeed alive and real—Julia Farren (played by Julia Dean), and her daughter, Barbara (Elizabeth Russell), whom she refuses to acknowledge, calling her an imposter. Amy visits the old woman. The two have a connection, which wounds Julia. Reality is suspended, paused, in Curse. The look of the movie reflects that cessation. Christmas carolers gather outside of Amy’s home, looking less like human beings, more like an animated seasonal card. But the quiet, subtle touches ground us in something humanly real, as quotidian as the morning alarm clock.


The carolers are welcomed into the home of the Reeds for hot chocolate, and Amy goes to get her coat. This is a movie in which she’ll later get lost in the woods, in the deep snow, in a dress, no less, fall asleep, emerge unharmed. Sobering points of reality are not the point. But as I watch her execute such a basic gesture—getting the coat before a quick outside interlude—I have a tendency to snap back into myself, to recall that we’ve never left the real world because this is what is real for this child. That we bear witness to her form of reality is a manner of reality itself.


As the carolers sing “Shepherds Shake Off Your Drowsy Sleep,” we’re roused along with Amy, who is now in her backyard, where Irena sings a descanting counterpoint for the same song, but in French, a multiplicity of valid, concurrently existing worlds.


Amy’s friend eventually departs, as I imagine the Great Pumpkin would, after he had deposited his tranche of gifts and you had perhaps fired off a question or two about how he got the gig and his view of it. The film’s climax riffs on Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow mythos in surprising ways, complete with an enthralling, legitimately scary bridge-based set-piece, only sans fiery pumpkin head and devoid of horse. Well, horse as we think of a horse. There is still horse power.