Friday, November 13, 2009

The Mortal Storm

Innsbruck, Austria is a mountainous, yet feasible cross country ski trek from the German village where Frank Borzage’s Mortal Storm (1940) is set in.

Here Viktor Roth, on his 60th birthday, is about to be honoured by the university he lectures at for achievements in science, except he doesn’t know that yet. Anyway, he’s a jolly good fellow, dignified and old, as Jonathan Richman might say. We meet his family at breakfast. Two energetic young boys (one played by a 21 year-old Robert Stack) bound into his room and wish him a happy birthday in a sing-song fashion.

A tender moment between them is shared. Viktor tells them they mean as much to him as his own flesh and blood. The boys turn around and say we don’t think of you as our Stepfather. Victor gets choked up, and so do you (and it’s not like you are the bastard son of anyone or anything).

The Father and his Sons do look nothing alike. The Dad is hard-lined and severe, while the boys are perfect Nordic blondes and blue-eyed. We also meet his stepdaughter — the great Margaret Sullavan. Her gift to him is a cashmere scarf that she ties around his neck as he heads out the door.

His lecture turns out to be a surprise party. A German song is sung. Two students approach the lectern and say a few kind words. They are played by Jimmy Stewart and Robert Young. A gift is presented. The audience, made up of students, peers, and his family, who are located in the balcony of the lecture hall — applaud with collective vigour.

Evening comes and we’re back at the Roth’s for a family dinner. Jimmy Stewart is also here. Cut to the servery where Robert Young is stealing a kiss from Margaret as she adds candles to the birthday cake. He threatens to announce their engagement and she appears to be in two minds about it, but ultimately feels it would be hard to resist (also to be in two minds about it: Jimmy Stewart). Cake arrives and Dad makes a fine speech about good humour, tolerance and other virtues that underpin their family and reinforce their position as a well-refined and progressive unit.

Robert Young proceeds to steal some of Dad’s thunder by announcing his engagement to Margaret Sullaven, while they both get upstaged by Adolf Hitler whose ascendancy comes over a radio news bulletin. Allegiances are quickly established. Young and the two Aryan-looking sons are thrilled with the country’s new direction and keen to make Germany a force by any means necessary.

In opposition are the Dad, Jimmy Stewart and, you could say, Margaret. Not that they are pacifists so much, just free thinkers. After all the Dad is a bloody scientist who can prove that blood doesn’t mean shit! You can imagine what happens. The poison of the Third Reich’s doctrine, led by sweaty, scar-faced and hideous Nazies, begins to spread. Even the most functional families get torn apart. Absolutely harrowing.

This was the second masterpiece of 1940 starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. Ernst Lubitsch’s Shop around the Corner was the first, a charming romantic comedy about small business capitalism (also starring Viktor Roth).

Not surprisingly Germany banned the importation of MGM products upon the release of this, a masterful film whose shadow looms large (two great recent flicks: The Lives of Others and Inglorious Basterds are hugely indebted to it). I love Margaret Sullavan. She is great. She went deaf in her late forties and no longer could act and then committed suicide.

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Unicorns

It was another vastly overrated day for Stroke Clapton, eavesdropper for Terrorism Taskforce. At a secluded hut inside the Queensland rainforest the special agent was twiddling his thumbs. Officially bored out of his brain, he searched frantically for a paperclip, overturning a filing cabinet and two plastic trays. He unbent the bit of metal and used it to swab his ear, gaining ample relief.

He then unwedged his Speedo and walked outside into the hot, humid morning to feed Maurice. Maurice was an ugly lizard recovering from a collision with a motorbike. It glared through one puffy eye. Stroke yawned. All night Stroke had been sitting at a giant switchboard, eavesdropping on international calls, trying to snuff out suspicious dialogue through selective surveillance. As the western world teetered on a timorous knife edge, it was up to guys like Stroke to prevent another 9/11-type thing from happening. He was doing his best. But over the past week there had been nothing. No potential terrorist threat at all. Stroke dropped a small rodent into Maurice’s deformed maw.

In a few minutes, this would all change. A red light on the veranda would flash and a horn would sound. This would signal Stroke into the control room to strap on some bulky headgear and listen in on a call from Montreal to Melbourne. The conversation would be between two men about an upcoming tour. A trio of rambling musical geniuses called The Unicorns who were intending to visit Melbourne.

The music, as Stroke would later discover, was a tragicomic masterpiece, containing sing-along lyrics about living, dying, necrophilia and crying, all backed by classic melodies and loopy effects, fantastically scratchy guitars, sweet as liqueur vocals and cannibalistic keyboards driven ravenous by musky aromas. But the conversation would be eerie, with answers coming courtesy of Nicholas "Niel" Diamonds, a Unicorn himself. Stroke listened and he learned…

What are you doing now?
"We're just making dinner".

What are you cooking?
"Alden made this crazy like pizza out of eggplant and flax and a human placenta ".


"Yes, in Canada it's a little bit more common. But what we do here is we get a placenta from after the baby thing happens and you can eat them and they're actually full of protein and so we've made this pizza".


"I know that that might freak you out. Jamie and I used a bit of placenta and made a salad. We made a salad dressing sauce with some of the umbilical cord".


"No, what?! Now you think I'm bullshitting. My mother's a nurse, she has access to that kind of stuff and Jamie's mom's a midwife. We can get other stuff too". Like what? "Nail clippings. The dirt under the nails we clean off. Canada is all about being resourceful. We try to make do with what we have here. There's a lot of tundra. Every month we are required to kill at least one buffalo and what you have to do is make it last all winter. There's one in our household right now. It's a pet buffalo, we don’t eat that one. We ride it around. Slappy. 'Alden don’t, get off, you're going to hurt his back!' "

How did you meet?

"I met Alden when I was 16. We were both dating the same person and didn’t know. It almost came to blows. She was neat. She was really nice and neat and tidy. She liked Frank Zappa and smelled really good. She smelled citrus-y. It was a natural scent. She showered three times a day and still smelled like oranges. She is our muse… I met Jamie at a bridge building tournament. We were doing engineering at a school for mildly retarded people. We really admired each other's bridges and that kind of bridged the gap. I put a peanut on my bridge and it collapsed. Jamie managed toothpicks and olives".

"I'm six feet tall, Alden, at 4'11", is the shortest. He is a gymnast and the bar is his specialty. We bring the bar with us on most of our tours. It's a real spectacle. We wear nice clothes on stage. We like Armani suits. We believe in looking good. We come from a very Aristocratic background. We've also got a funny terrorist costume, but we're wondering if we can get that through customs".

Stroke stopped eavesdropping there. His ears promptly gulped shut as he pondered the recent exchange. It was disgusting, derelict and most of all, unAustralian, he surmised. These dangerous punks needed to be stopped and Stroke decided he was the man who could do it. He planned to close in on them with incredible force, perhaps removing their pants from their travel bags after they check in at Tullamarine, or redirecting their guitars to Shanghai. Just because The Unicorns are devilishly smart, pretty and elusive doesn’t mean Stroke will be denied making a capture. At any rate, the concerned citizens of Melbourne await the exciting conclusion.