March 30, 1938 [Jezebel]

A movie like Jezebel reminds me that a thick gloom runs beneath our feet, low enough that many of us can move along without much impediment--but which is sometimes kicked up a bit, like dry leaves and dust. And that gloom has substance, is as starkly real as the lynchings and casual denigration that haunts the boundary between the white and negro races--and it is deepened by a collective Southern memory that imagines an aristocracy held aloft by a backed-up sewage pipe. Watching the South succumb to its own swamp-fever, a dissonant scrap from The Threepenny Opera rested on the back of my neck like a cold hand:
For once you must try not to shirk the facts:
Mankind is kept alive by bestial acts.
And Bette Davis holds up her chin and smiles while she smells that bursting sewer, her nose open, her eyes shining with a panic her laughter conceals like a trembling hand over a defeated grin. I was surprised at the movie's relentless efforts to kill the South, to shoot it down in duels or burn it out with fever--Henry Fonda trying to stay healthy, laid low for the effort. There is so little laughter and so many tears that even the dance is blood-red, ashamed of itself for its insistent virginity.

Davis gives me nothing to write: I simply want to demand I go and see her again--a fearless performance; and even when the Warner Brothers and Max Steiner's music give her the space to redeem herself, her face is strained, defiant that anyone would think of her as anything but herself, whether she is the spoiled girl, the self-assured woman, the saint. She compels us to see her as all of them, as whatever she needs at the moment, even if it's our hatred--with which she shames those of us who have ever succumbed to the Southern myth of gentility. Yes, they live--and so do we, right at the spilling border--like beasts in a clearing.


Popular Posts