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Toward a radical middle

a time for fear
Wednesday, May 21, 2003  
"I've been told I am like this ring - apt to fall"

She twists the ring from her finger, erasing the memory of a short-lived and unwanted marriage, a contract made in the shadow of disappointment and personal insult, and the past is wiped away, and the future falls silent...

(The weird thing about watching a silent film - especially on a big screen, with a live pianist, the only possibility: total submission to a finely woven spell, the nostalgic dream, light & shadow magic - is that you swear to God that you remember things being said. You recite the best lines of the film in your head as though you've heard them.)

Greta Garbo in A Woman of Affairs - so fine, despite the melodrama, at times precisely because of it (the hospital scene, that moment she inhales Neville's flowers, an ecstasy of warmth and desire spreading like celestial light across her face, bathing her skin, a beatific martyr drowning in throes, pangs, and momentary relief...or her reunion with Neville three days before he marries pretty, predictable Constance, a scene in which the grand drama of unrequited love is consummated with an inflated pathos that fixes Garbo and John Gilbert's figures in a stony, mythical'd be impossible to render this kind of neoclassical grand passion on the movie screen now, it wouldn't translate, would look silly, because distance and drama and dream are no longer implied, assumed...even demanded? You'd rather laugh at the idea of love now.) In this adaptation of Michael Arlen's 1924 potboiler The Green Hat, Garbo plays Iris Storm (renamed Diana Merrick), an archetypal twenties flapper and renegade aristocrat or...a woman torn apart by desire, duty, speed, liberty, failure, loss. Arlen's Storm is an impossible figure, a composite of his own delirious desires, impulses and fears, a reaction to the radical social escapee Nancy Cunard, with whom he had a brief affair. By the time you get to Clarence Brown's 1928 film most of this has been diluted, lost, until you're left with a rather stark and harrowing melodrama absolutely dominated by the glacial, enigmatic composure of Garbo's Diana Merrick, a creation of steely nerve, brittle nerves, and flashes of screen passion that burst like a geyser against the ice. So, like the great screen presence that she is, Garbo plays Garbo, and it's a weird concoction: sometimes proud and supple like a finely bred horse, sometimes gaudy like a drag queen; sometimes a silvery, moving mannequin, sometimes The Scarlet Woman you'd die for, or who'd kill you.

A total dream in a low cloche hat and a lady's mac, belt wrapped around waist, collar high around swan neck, eye sockets hollowed out, eyebrows plucked. Garbo is a compelling tension between restraint and rapture, dignity and decadence. This narcissistic conflict wraps the film around itself, has an almost supernatural effect on the studio lighting and Garbo herself: particles of light seem to gravitate around her, and she bathes in the glow of immortality and adoration while keeping it at bay, courting distance, retreating - not into shadows - but silence and invisibility.

A Woman of Affairs is not a great film. It dilutes a fairly bizarre lust-and-pain crazed potboiler into a clumsy, wan melodrama and the only thing that rescues it - the only reason it would ever be shown in the NFT - is Garbo. Sublime Garbo, Garbo hitting heights of movie transcendence in the dying twilight of the silent era, touched with poignancy, dazzled in obscure, alien, Northern European radiance...she is the sunlight hitting frost, and the frost hit by sunlight.

9:49 AM

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