Saturday, July 18, 2009
[flicker] The Naked Kiss
The body accounts for no sin. Between life and death, it is merely a soft machine on which we’ve hitched a ride. What lies beyond those two known constants is the stuff of debates on the grand revelation- paradise, hell, reincarnation, darkness or the great ecstasy. What lies tucked in between, the soft stuff, is the stuff of life.
“I really believe that it’s the world that make you what you are. It’s not you who make the world.”
- Samuel Fuller
The picture opens with an unforgettable scene of savage energy- a towering lady inflicting her mad wrath on some soul whose immediate and frenzied point of view the audience is offered to share. The soundtrack bleeds crazy jazz as the woman relentlessly plummets the man with not a nickel of mercy to spare. In the midst of so much visceral insanity, Mr. Fuller drops another classic shocker, a veritable bombshell. The woman’s wig is knocked off to reveal a shockingly crude clean-shaven head. Proud woman, she’s wounded, she’s hurt and she’s more feral than ever. You can see it in her eyes. She lets loose another volley of sharp blows. The blinded man, the living daylights knocked clean out of him staggers and spread-eagles across the floor- helpless, whimpering. Off the eight hundred dollars he has on him, the woman counts only seventy five.
In her own words- just what is coming to her… nothing more.
As this glorious warrior woman stands in front of the mirror, fixing her wig, practicing that sexy smile, getting herself back together after the havoc she just wrecked on a defenseless soul, the credits kick in just oh-so-smooth. And this is where you have a moment to pause, take a deep breath and remark- Goddamn it, what a swell name for a picture!
‘The Naked Kiss’
Written, Produced and Directed by Samuel Fuller. Mad man. Auteur. New Wave Icon. The man’s man. The tabloid chronicler of life’s seamy underbelly. The compulsive shocker. The sensationalist. The warrior. The man with the cigar. The shootist. One who famously said, “If the first scene doesn’t give you a hard-on then throw the goddamn thing away.”
Ol’ Fuller being the kind of film-maker that these days you read about before you actually get to see his work, the bravura opening sequence will just about reinforce every image of him you had dreamed up in your head. You might as well cash in your chips, tip your hat to the lovely ladies and hit the closest bar.
But the more you stare at the amazonian in the mirror there is a strange feeling of something… something a bit more fragile. A trace of hurt and loss. An inkling of gloom. Like something ineffable was chipped away from the perfect image. Something that haunts even as it entices. A wounded woman, a beautiful aching creature. The sizzling heat of lurid pulp has given away to a familiar warmth- the sensual but all too human warmth of the body.
My first encounter with Fuller was his seminal Richard Widmark vehicle ‘Pick Up on South Street’. Apart from Widmark’s smooth performance as the pick-pocket, I had pretty much dismissed the film. That was about five years ago. In the last five years, the name seemed to crop up every once in a while. Godard and the New Wave cronies for one could never get enough of Fuller. Scorsese is a given. Jarmusch, the Krausmaki brothers- Fuller was their main man. And then there was the Fuller legend. The time he went to war and came back a celebrated hero, the time he criss-crossed across America in freight trains a typewriter strapped across his back sending dispatches back to newspaper offices, his preposterously prolific spell as a writer of dime novels… it is well and truly said, Fuller lived more than two lifetimes before he made his first movie. He had seen enough life and enough people and put that together with the unerring tabloid eye and the no-nonsense uber-macho pose and you have one of the purest, visceral, punch-drunk beautiful cinematic sensibilities that have ever graced the screen. But the trick is I guess, and there is always one with Fuller, you have to earn it. It took twenty five years and I’m just getting there.
‘The Naked Kiss’ for all its strange plotting and unabashed melodrama is grounded in the fragile complexity that is the stuff of life. No one, not even the most dastardly is dismissed forthright. Fuller’s gaze seems to find beauty in the darkest corner of the soul even if it has been wrecked unrecognizable by the ways of the world. And in this melancholy wretched beauty he seems to find courage, compassion, sacrifice. To say that his films “stood by the underdog” is utter bullshit. His films are mortal. They live, they die, and they fade beautifully into memories. In the midst of excess, the pretensions fall apart and then you can see… life.
“I saw a broken down piece of machinery. Nothing but the buck, the bed and the bottle for the rest of my life. That’s what I saw,” says the woman Kelly, once a prostitute to the cop Griff who can’t seem to believe that she’s left her old profession to become a nurse. Fuller refuses to turn Griff’s resentment into villainous bile. In Fuller’s gaze his frustration is merely jealousy as he sees one of his own class pass into a higher social plane, something he will never be able to do. An understandable working of the human heart. Later as Kelly gets engaged to the town’s most eligible bachelor and Griff’s best friend, his rage only increases. But later, as his demons and petty grudges are put to rest, the catharsis is overpowering.
Another scene with bleeding melancholy is the one where Kelly stands in front of a tiny wounded infant and frantically runs her fingers across the innocent’s face and then over hers. And then there is classic magical Gondola sequence where the film slips into full-blown melodrama until… like the Buddha said- Life is miserable.
Fuller shoots the underdog because there he finds life. The rest is all pretension. The heartbreaking final scene in Jarmusch’s ‘Night On Earth’. Therein lies Fuller. In Krausmaki’s tender rebuke to the New Wave ‘La Vie Boheme’. Therein lies Fuller. In the final scene of ‘The Naked Kiss’ after much scandal, Kelly leaves town. Sure the people seem to adore her but she knows too much, has seen too much to believe she has any chance of making it straight here. Like Philip Marlowe, Continental Op, Daryl Zero, the greatest and if I may say so, the noblest of the creatures of that wretched wasted noir landscape, she needs to drift. She has to. Into an essential loneliness with which she has, knowing-unknowing, made a pact.
In Constance Towers as Kelly and as Anthony Eisley as Griff, there are unforgettable performances- their bodies bearing testament to the terrifying naked kiss that is the tough life.
No amount of writing can do justice to the beauty at the heart of Fuller’s film. So many words… only to be blown apart by the high punk of the soul. Fuller is pure cinema. It has to be seen. It has to be experienced. And it sure as hell has to be earned.
(the retro-franco-heat romance novel covers from It’s Deadlicious, Sam Fuller Pics from Edge of the Frame and Flickr, Kolatkar Poem from SFU)
(Cross-posted at www.passionforcinema.com)