Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Monday, September 05, 2005

Greta Garbo at 100

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The original article can be found on here:
Monday, September 5, 2005 (SF Chronicle)
GARBO/The immortal Garbo was born a century ago.
In 100 more years, we'll still care.
Mick LaSalle, Chronicle Movie Critic

Greta Garbo (1905-1990), who was born in Stockholm 100 years ago this month, is a monumental cinematic figure, an actress of great gifts andextraordinary beauty, who left behind a body of work that's unlike anybody else's. Her films were strangely similar, for one thing. They said the same things, repeated the same messages, played out the same scenarios,time after time. They were about passion, sacrifice and grand love, not the usual movie kind of love. They were about carnal, romantic love as something profound, transformative and ultimately spiritual.

To put it in another way, Garbo's movies were at heart about sex and transcendence, two things that everybody wants and that people will never stop wanting. And because she evoked and promised and depicted and inflamed these timeless human longings with unquestioning conviction and consummate artistry, she is never going to go away. Ever. A hundred years from now, film critics will be writing articles commemorating Garbo's 200th birthday.

Of course, for me Garbo is something more. She is the woman who wrecked my life, or at least changed my life. Before Garbo, I always figured I'd go to law school, and I never had any special interest in movies -- certainly not any fanatical interest. And then I saw Garbo in "Grand Hotel," and some switch went off in my head. I don't know why, exactly. My high school sweetheart and I had just broken up a few months before, so maybe I was just a lonely, miserable slob. Or maybe it was some latent psychosis kicking in. In any case, I became absolutely obsessed, as obsessed as someone might have been in 1928, when Garbo was something new.

I went to the library -- the quaint thing people used to do to obtain information in the pre-Internet days -- and took out every book about her. I also went through other books about her era, looking her up in the index. This was at the dawn of video, so none of her films were on VHS,but I lived in New York, where there were lots of repertory houses.

Today, being nostalgic about the pre-video days is a little like being nostalgic about being broke now that you have money -- who'd want to go back? And yet that particular thrill, of going to a repertory house and seeing a movie that you'd only imagined through still pictures, can never again be replicated. It was fascinating and strange just to see Garbo in movement,having looked at the stills so many times. Something that had been frozen had sprung to life in this dark place.

It was like the opposite of the situation Plato describes in "The Republic." It was as if, to really see beauty and truth, you had to go into the cave and stare at shadows. I've since come to believe two things about Garbomania, based on both experience and observation: (1) Not everyone has the gene; (2) if you have it, and you're male, it's best to be exposed when you're young -- sayabout 19 or 20.

Apparently, this has always been the case. In her heyday, Garbo's female fans spanned every age, but her male fans skewed very young. Her fan mail was mainly from guys around 20 years old, who were looking for a woman to worship. Generally, 25-year-old men are not looking for a woman to worship. They're looking for someone to have fun with (like Jean Harlow). And 35-year-old men aren't looking for a woman to worship, either, but rather someone sexy, sensible and presentable who's easy to live with over the long haul (like Norma Shearer). But around 20 years old -- that's the dangerous age. It's the little stretch of time in men's lives in which love seems divine, preordained and supernatural. That's the Garbo age.

Normally, I don't think about this. But a couple of things have happened in the past couple of weeks, related to the Garbo centenary, that have yanked me back into the past, and I find myself remembering the staticky speakers and old red-upholstered seats at Theatre 80 St. Marks, on Eighth Street in Manhattan.

I remember going to bed at 11 and having the alarmclock wake me up at 2:20 a.m. to see something on "The Late, Late, LateShow." I remember the stillness of my parents' house, the silence as loud as tape hiss, and then my father snoring as I crept down the stairs to turn on the TV. I'll never forget (nor quite understand) that strange sense of kinship that came of watching something alone in the middle of the night -- knowing that at the same time others were watching it, too,and sharing in this communion across the decades.

The two things that have made all this all new for me again, albeit temporarily, are these: Mark Vieira's new book, "Greta Garbo: A Cinematic Legacy" (Abrams) and Warner Home Video's release of "Garbo -- TheSignature Collection," a 10-DVD set featuring 10 films. I should say at the outset that Vieira, who is from this area and worked in San Francisco as a photographer for many years, is a friend of mine.But when he told me he was doing a book on Garbo, I expected just ahandsome picture book with a lot of the usual rehashed information.

There have been, after all, dozens of books about Garbo. What more was there to say? In fact, Vieira's coffee table book has a 160,000-word text that gives a detailed production history of every American film she ever made.

Page after page, his research reveals things no one else has ever uncovered. Infused with Vieira's undisguised enthusiasm for Garbo'smovies, the book is essentially the biography, not of a person, but of a career, and it's a significant piece of scholarship. It's one of the two indispensable books written about the actress, along with Richard Corliss'critical study, "Garbo," from 1974.

As for "Garbo -- The Signature Collection," which will be releasedTuesday, it contains the following 11 films, in chronological order: "The Temptress" (1926), "Flesh and the Devil" (1927), "The Mysterious Lady"(1928), "Anna Christie" (1930), the German version of "Anna Christie"(1930), "Mata Hari" (1931), "Grand Hotel" (1932), "Queen Christina"(1933), "Anna Karenina" (1935), "Camille" (1937) and "Ninotchka" (1929).

Always quibbles: I'd have liked to see a better print for "Queen Christina," and I'd have rather seen "The Torrent," "A Woman of Affairs" and "The Painted Veil" in place of "The Temptress" and two "AnnaChristies." But hey, they have to save some good movies for the next "Signature Collection." This is a major release, and taking the cellophane off that package was like Christmas morning four months early.

What is there to say to someone who has never seen Garbo but is somehow inspired to rent or buy the "Signature Collection"? Ten random things:

1. Garbo seemed at least 35 even when she was very young, which gave her an almost unearthly look of youthful perfection and maturity at the same time. See her in "Mata Hari," for example, in the scene in which she brushes her hair. She's 26 and looks it, but she also looks 40. It's a potent combination, that kind of authority, in someone so young and beautiful.

2. Her beauty is not pretty, just beautiful. Like Callas' voice.

3. Notice the religious imagery in her films, there from the very beginning. (In "The Temptress," for example, she has a hallucinogenic encounter with a man she mistakes for Jesus.) That's unique to Garbo and pervades her career. Her films equated physical ecstasy with spiritual ecstasy in a way that was simultaneously subversive and devout. In the Garbo universe, romantic love was something divine. The Renaissance painters hid their sexual preoccupations behind the veneer of religious tableaux. Garbo did the reverse, disguising a conventionally spiritual message within the context of her sex dramas. This might account for the almost religious devotion of her '30s following.

4. In "The Temptress" and "Flesh and the Devil," Garbo was cast as a vamp -- and she would have been typecast, had she not rebelled. Garbo hated playing evil characters. Notice how in both films she fights against the script to play the characters not as sly women thirsting for power but as nitwits lusting for sex. After these films, she went on strike for better roles -- and got them. From then on, she made what she wanted to make and essentially became her own auteur.

5. "The Mysterious Lady" is not a particularly good movie, but it's a great Garbo movie. The scene in which she brings Conrad Nagel back to her apartment is the stuff of dreams. By contrast, "Ninotchka" is a great movie, but as a Garbo vehicle it's only so-so.

6. Notice how a motionless camera makes "Anna Christie" almost unwatchable. And then notice how in the German version, directed byJacques Feyder, the camera, the movie -- and Garbo -- wake up. That's the difference a good director makes.

7. Notice how in "Grand Hotel" Garbo swings from histrionic and awful (in the first scene) to histrionic and brilliant (in the second love scene). This is her warm-up for "Camille," in which she'll get everything just right.

8. If you want to see how adult and wise Hollywood movies could be before censorship intruded, see "Queen Christina," which has gay inferences,implied lesbianism and a love story about two people who jump into bed about two hours after first meeting. It also has the most affecting last five minutes of just about any movie ever made, with the possible exception of Chaplin's "City Lights."

9. Notice how the Production Code sucks every bit of joy from Garbo's infidelity in "Anna Karenina" (1935), forcing her to be physically remote from her co-star, Fredric March, in as passionless a presentation of adultery imaginable. What a missed opportunity.

10. Garbo's performance in "Camille" is a masterpiece that's at once extreme and psychologically subtle. It's a performance pitched on a high histrionic level, but that fact isn't noticed on first viewing because she's utterly believable. Her performance is like music: It's not meant to be experienced just once, but rather it reveals itself over multiple exposures. Indeed, it's possible to see the movie 50 times and still see new things in her performance ... but don't ask me how I know that.

There are many other points to be made, but those will get you started.

Welcome to the cult.

3 Garbo films at Rafael Film Center will honor her centenary

The Rafael Film Center is in the midst of a mini-festival of Greta Garbo films, celebrating the Garbo centenary -- she was born on Sept. 18, 1905,in Stockholm, Sweden. These are the films that you can still catch:

Sept. 8: "Two-Faced Woman" (1941). Garbo's last film is also her most maligned, a light sex comedy that was slammed by the critics. In retrospect, it's rather fun. It will be introduced by author Mark Vieira, who will sign copies of his new book, "Greta Garbo: A Cinematic Legacy," after the screening.

Sept. 11: "Ninotchka" (1939). Garbo's first foray into comedy, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, is a complete delight. She plays a dour Soviet envoy who goes to Paris on a mission and awakens to love and romance.

Sept. 14: "A Woman of Affairs" (1928). Garbo gives her first greatperformance in this silent film, about an impulsive woman who isdisappointed in love and drowns her sorrows in a series of affairs. It co-stars John Gilbert.

A few more words about the "Garbo -- The Signature Collection": In addition to the films, it includes an excellent feature-length documentary about Garbo, by Kenneth Brownlow, which is airing this month on TCM. The "Camille" disc contains the Nazimova-Valentino "Camille" from 1921.

The"Grand Hotel" disc contains vintage shorts and newsreel footage of the premiere. And the silent movie discs contain commentaries by film scholars and the only surviving reel of Garbo's lost silent film, "The DivineWoman" (1928).

E-mail Mick LaSalle at
Copyright 2005 SF Chronicle


Compass360 Consulting Group said...

Great Stuff!

Anonymous said...

I am glad you found Garbo. Looks like you found her when I did years ago.
You should visit the Yahoo Group "Greta Garbo Queen of Solitaire" sometime, or Phillip Oliver's site "Greta Garbo-The Ultimate Star" ; the message board there is very insightful. There are quite a few of us 'obsessed' with the divine Garbo!