The Spirit Of Progress
Saturday June 28, 2008
Style was everything in the design-conscious decades that delivered Marlene Dietrich, Bakelite radios and the iconic Empire State Building. In the National Gallery of Victoria's Winter Masterpiece exhibition, the dawn of modernism can be traced in objects and images that marry the mundane and the majestic.ART DECO AND THE cinema enfolded each other, celebrated each other. In the space between two world wars, they shared qualities and compulsions, strategies and styles. Both were products of art and industry, progress and consumption, objects of the machine age, flourishing in a period of luxury and instability. Certain movies distilled the qualities that art deco embodied, certain stars incarnated its allures and its contradictions. Speed, mobility, symmetry. Shine, surface, reflection. The heady combination of dynamism and geometry, sharp curve and line. Hedonism. Exoticism. Hybridity. Escape. The allure of otherness and elsewhere. For filmmakers, the machinery and alchemy of cinema made excess accessible, it allowed designers and artists the freedom to overreach, to imagine - and then to create - impossible material worlds, geographies of fantasy.Movies created and circulated deco style, carrying it - with rapidity, efficiency and flourish - around the world and back again. To its consumers, the elements of this style were at once a dream and a possibility: difference transformed, made familiar, attainable to anyone for the price of a cinema ticket. Cinemas - picture palaces, so-called - became monuments to modernity, deco destinations in themselves.The NGV's Art Deco exhibition pays tribute to the place of movies, with screening sessions to accompany it, film loops, and images in the gallery. A montage of films will be shown in a lounge area in the middle of the exhibition: on display will be extracts from Grand Hotel, featuring the decor of a luxury destination and the architecture of Garbo's face; 42nd Street, in which beleaguered producers put on a show, in the place where, according to the song, "the underworld can meet the elite" and Busby Berkeley's choreographic imagination can run riot; King Kong, the resonant encounter between beauty and beast, Empire State and primate, New York spectacle and Skull Island ritual. These three films, as well as Shanghai Express, will also screen in their entirety at the gallery.Hollywood, in the deco era, reached out to the iconic otherness of the European actress, to subject matter that seemed exotic. It sought out directors and stars from Europe: Dietrich, Garbo, von Sternberg, Lang and Murnau, among the many whom it wooed and elevated. And, at the same time, American performers who did not fit the conventional mould - Josephine Baker, Anna May Wong, Louise Brooks - benefited from the imprimatur of Europe, or found their greatest success there.Shanghai Express is an emblematic deco movie. The title is the name of a train, travelling through China in 1931, carrying a polyglot collection of passengers across the country - a clash of language, class, morality, amid the turmoil of a civil war. Americans, Britons, French, German, Chinese - all with something to sell, trade or conceal. The film is ostensibly about one particular journey on the Shanghai Express but it's also about what Shanghai expresses; the city, in all its potent otherness, its combination of threat and possibility, carried an imaginative charge in Hollywood cinema. And Shanghai was, in fact, an art deco capital in its own right, a movie city, a treaty port, a perfect symbol of deco's creative and commercial reach.In Shanghai Express, two characters stand out, two female figures - above all, the woman known as Shanghai Lily, played with memorable, dynamic grace by Marlene Dietrich. Her provenance is unstated: she comes from everywhere. She speaks several languages. Her cheekbones, eyebrows and wardrobe are the quintessence of deco. She is described as the acme of notoriety, a "coaster", a "woman who lives by her wits along the China coast". Her clothes - the way she wears them and the way she moves in them - are essential elements of her performance. She metamorphoses from one outfit to another, as fluid, ambiguous and striking as her character. She wears silk that skims and falls away, dresses punctuated with luminous detail; sleeves that sparkle with points of light, a pointed collar of metallic fabric that glints and gleams. She surrounds herself with a sculptural, spiky swathe of feathers, her face obscured by the shadow of a veil. In one scene, she has a coat with an encircling fur collar that frames her like an oversize halo: then with an insouciant, playful gesture, she dons the peaked army cap of her one-time lover, a fellow-passenger on the Shanghai Express. Another layer of meaning, assumed in an instant.Her garments are combinations of the animal - fur, feathers - and the artificial, seamlessly combined. And they embody her contradictions - the glamour that sets her apart, the visual elements that proclaim who she seems to be but also conceal who she is: she is viewed as a predator, a danger, but she functions, covertly, as a protector in this film, a figure who will allow herself to be sacrificed for love.Alongside Lily is another female figure of surfaces and depths: Hui Fen, a fellow-"coaster", played by Anna May Wong, Los Angeles-born, third-generation Chinese-American, who made her movie debut at 14 and travelled between Europe and the US as a performer. Wong's clothes, too, are part of who she is, Asian-inflected, satin, angular: she smokes with introspective elegance, she has long straight hair, a sculpted, gleaming perfectly shaped fringe. Her voice is deep, her presence intense: she has only a few lines but a crucial role in the drama. She and Dietrich share a compartment, a dubious reputation and an air of composure, and there's an almost sexual charge to their scenes together. She is Shanghai Lily's shadow counterpart, perhaps - and she does (it could be said) her dirty work, suffering and acting in her stead - but Wong, in her fleeting scenes, makes her count for more than this.In Grand Hotel, another European import, Greta Garbo, embodies deco style, in a more stilted, statuesque fashion: her character is a ballerina who longs for solitude, who wants to shed the trappings of her life. She is one of several people taking refuge in a luxurious location, and the story is a tale of lives in flux and criss-crossing fates but the movie is shot, as critic Dave Kehr suggests, with a deliberate kind of fixity and restraint; "direction (Edmund Goulding), screenplay (William A. Drake), and cinematography (William Daniels) all seem deliberately pale", Kehr says, "the better to set off the glitter of the stars; they're like jewels mounted in a deliberately neutral display case". Garbo is there as a figure to be marvelled at and consumed. As Leonard Hall wrote of the actress in Photoplay magazine in 1930: "Women flock to her pictures to wonder, admire, gasp and copy. In every county of the country, slink and posture a score of incipient Garbos."In The Purple Rose of Cairo, Woody Allen's poignant hymn to the cinema of the 1930s, Mia Farrow plays one of the women who flock to the pictures, finding not so much an idol to admire and copy but a dream life to take her away from her own daily miseries: and in the final scene the movie that transports her is Top Hat, the iconic, dazzling 1935 spectacle that begins with a chance meeting in a hotel, as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers cross paths. A wonderful expression of song and dance fantasy, it also takes its characters and viewers on an extraordinary design journey, from the sumptuous - an artificial art deco Venice location- to the absurd - a frothy ostrich-feathered dress for Rogers, in the Cheek To Cheek number, that almost consumes her.42nd Street drew on an another kind of aspirational fantasy, and, intriguingly, fulfilled the dreams it was creating. A backstage musical set, with knowing, brash, sardonic certainty, in the midst of the Depression, it was a hugely successful hit that saved its studio, Warner Bros, from collapse. Its narrative was a riff on the notion that a performer "could go out there an unknown, and come back a star" but its Busby Berkeley choreography was its raison d'etre, where the moving camera was part of the dance and the dancer's body was a commodity, a design element, part of a constantly refreshed kaleidoscopic chorus.King Kong was released at the same time as 42nd Street and did much more erratic business at the time. But its after-effect has been remarkable. It is not only a celebration of the glories of the Empire State Building, it's also a film about spectacle, consumption, the city, creativity, the desire to embrace "the primitive", the allure of the exotic, and as a work that played with contrasts in scale, and fears about the masculine and the feminine. Not a sophisticated work, at first glance but a prescient, richly suggestive one, a movie about the dangers of messing with the unknown, and a film that gave us a memorable male star of the 1930s. And, in its own way, an anticipation, perhaps, of the decline of deco - the end of an era, the collapse of spectacle and the intrusion of reality.