What is Hollywood, you ask, dear children? A quorum of whores babbling endlessly on about fucking while the bordello is razed for a penny arcade -- Paul Bern

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


Concerning Lord Love A Duck (George Axelrod, 1966)
(Originally published in Automovilinak, the Czech Edition of Movieline. Translated to English by Frantisek Dolezal.)

A mabusefilm. A defiant, Buñuelian spitball in the face of the Fascist Youth Culture that would engulf much of our world, leaving us eternally frozen, spring-like and banal. To the now-unemployed, unnamed worker-heroes of MGM who decided in a fit of cocaine psychosis to re-release this film: Our eternal thanks!

So what’s up exactly with this duck picture? Axelrod was a brilliant autodidact, a Sturges wannabe, & Bob McNamara’s hipper, funnier, fratboy brother, but the time was out of joint for him. He suffered an infamous piece of exile’s bad luck in Hollywood: The Manchurian Candidate, a perfect match for his sensibility and a scratch too ambiguous for its pop-cultural moment. A cosmic failure in its moment, it becomes the ur-film of “hollywoodbrand” paranoia leaching slowly like battery acid out into the dirty real world; what was surely intended as absurdist satire of the cold war paranoid, made by fellow travellers of the Kennedy Cosa Nostra – in the wacked-out interim transforms into a parallel universe Warren Report. Time is funny that way. Just ask any of the vast army of twitchy, sweaty Bennett Marcoes walking the streets today to explain it all to you.

Axelrod took this dismal sucker-punch and kept on fighting, and this sickly moonchild of a film is the result. If you can stand it, another bit of unheimlichkeit…Tuesday Weld, the female Brando and Actor-Auteur without peer, and for our purposes, the mysterious narrative engine of Lord Love a Duck, publicly declares her own mother dead to the press circa 1970. The poor woman protests that not only is she defiantly alive – her callous, shrewish daughter, in belated revenge for her issuance, has forsaken her not just ontologically, but in the way of finances, too. In the absurd, improbable fictions of Lord Love a Duck, Barbara Ann Greene, future star of Bikini Widow, trying to hide her humbler origins to her mother-in-law, fabricates the death of her father, who in reality is quite well and “lives in Oxnard somewhere and sells things…” Axelrod placed a sinister inside joke in his masterwork that wouldn’t ignite for another four years. Spooky, huh?

Like any good surrealist art object – Lord Love a Duck moves with a precise dream logic which I will only attempt to sketch in the absence of plot. And since the “plot” is nothing but awe for the tacking perversity of female desire -- in other words, the film reveals the secret operation of the world, its Langian heart, (lub-a-dub) usually covered in a veil of cashmere sweaters. The very DNA of the film itself is erotic and masochistic. What makes it truly weird, and perhaps inscrutable, is its odd historicity: this sort of film was only possible in the interregnum, that brief period of the withering away of the Hays Code, where the rules were clear, and thus subvertible, and the coming of Valenti’s user-friendly cooperative of Magic 8-ball Gramscian auto-criticism and self-censorship courtesy of the gringos' much beloved ratings system. You might even suggest that Lord Love a Duck was conceived exactly for the purpose of exploding the contradictions in the code which had bedeviled Axelrod and Wilder in The Seven Year Itch. But there is something tragicomic about this misplaced heroism, because like cold warriors after the fall of the Soviets, the joke was on them, because the negative structures that had made their art possible were gone forever. Now, for a demographic price, you can show anything but imply nothing. Like the useless tut-tutting on cigarettes, the MPAA’s orwellian content warnings (“Now, Griselda, if I have to see another one of them Universal piñatas swole up to bust with Thematic Content, I’ma gonna kill som’body…) merely draw the flies to the shit.

Roddy McDowall is a teen Mesmer figure (the ancestor both of J.D. from Heathers, and Ferris Bueller) who’d seem mildly creepy & despicable except that his only “queer” power, in both senses of the word, is to recognize and affirm Barbara Ann’s ever-shifting desire. His inverted, perverted passivity is weirdly erotic. Yet any supernatural implication of his mojo is carelessly banished by the empty symbolic poverty of the key. Note his look of bafflement when Barbara Ann asks him the unanswerable question: “…what do you get out of it?” And Roddy’s Fordian stare that can’t help but suggest Huw Morgan’s farewell in the colliery elevator in How Green Was My Valley as he replies: “I think of things.” Let’s recap: action as the feminine principle; demonic, passive contemplation (sometimes recognized in this Rabelaisian film as ogling) (1) as the masculine one. Axelrod has been justly calumniated as a specialist in post-war misogyny, a sex-farceur Strindberg, but impotent misogyny and its phantastic, utopian component is always his subject – not his agenda.

T. Harrison Belmont, the movie producer who serves as the “weenie king” of this picture – is another locus of contemplation: “Fifteen Beach Pictures I’ve made. This is the first time I’ve ever been to a beach.” A melancholic realization that is very Axelrod. Belmont watches the orgiastic Antonionian gyrations of the kids on the beach (see, it really is a Beach Picture!) in search of the (his) movie’s star, who is on his yacht next to him, though he doesn’t yet realize it. “Teenage Vampires are a big drag…” mutters his ex-star, Kitten, who is being kicked upstairs into Older Sister Roles: an Axelrod joke that took till 2008, Annus Twilighticus, to explode.

The funniest things in the movie are thrown away like fake jewels – the humor is completely peripheral, and very much in the slovenly, non-linear mode of the old Kurtzman MAD aesthetic. The style rewards re-watching. Like a tracking shot in the midst of a set piece about a drive-in church, which passes without emphasis on a Baez-like gamine listening to the sermon while sitting side-saddle on a motorcycle – this is too obscure to be an actual gag – it’s rather a comic image worthy of Tati. And speaking of Tati, he is also present and accounted for in the echoey comic sound space of the Bauhaus-lite ranch house living room, and in the strange African mask-like high school intercom speakers that carry the fragile cargo of Harvey Korman’s idiotic musings about his flock. Later there is some truly odd gag-wrestling between pseudo-rivals on the beach, as they jockey for position in the neighborhood that is Tuesday’s body. The rival, Bob Bernard, (Martin West) is maniacally pursuing absurdly contradictory agendas – he must chaperone the girls on the beach while seducing the very willing Barbara Ann, so his aggressive use of his body as a physical shield between the weirdly asexual Roddy and the elemental Tuesday W. is hilarious overkill. Later that night, Bob must tear himself away from a half-hearted make-out session with Barbara Ann because he has left the other girls at risk for their chastity, and as he leaves, he struggles into his absurd plaid blazer which leaks prodigies of sand from the sleeve. What does this rich, ambiguous image mean?

Nothing and everything.

As if not semantically burdened enough, 1950s Bob is a marriage counselor with (what else?) mother issues. She is Ruth Gordon, in a shrewd bit of Axelrodian shorthand. In the quest to fullfill her own desire, Barbara Ann is also hung up between two formidable mother figures: her tres louche divorcee mother, (Lola Albright) wearing some vaguely animalistic suit, the representative of chaotic sexuality (Bob: “Your mother is a prostitute!” “My mother is a cocktail waitress”, protests Barbara Ann) and her future mother-in-law who semaphores the lawgiving matriarchal power: “We don’t divorce our men, we bury them.” Of course, just as in real life, it’s no contest, and chaotic sexuality must yield to matriarchal power, as Mrs. Greene tears her own tail off after a brutal humilation in the suburban realm.

But only Barbara Ann can articulate the flailing, spectral nihilism in her and her mother’s life: “You don’t mean anything, and the car doesn’t mean anything, and nothing means anything!” This cry serves as prologue to the dazzling tonal shift into the best scene in the film, where the demonic Roddy leads the frenzied Barbara Ann into the bedroom where her mother lies dead, and then sweetly tells her not to touch anything, for the sake of the insurance, because it must look “like an accident”, not ever like a systemic failure of American, nay, Commercial life; This is pop cultural Marcuse – shining at the last twilit moment this stuff would be visible – of course it’s no wonder nobody got it. The death scene has real pathos, despite being savagely undercut by Roddy’s later bemused characterization of it as having “restored his faith in suicide”. Because it pays off the gag of Barbara Ann’s mother’s face-bending isometric exercises, “it’s called the silent scream…” which turns into a real, final living scream of despair, and finally the suicide, which helpfully eliminates the obstacle to the mixed class marriage.

The promised bliss, however, never comes, because by then Lord Love a Duck shifts into a perfunctory meta-farce of sexual repression and frustrated coitus – a 60’s suburban version of L’Age D’Or where Barbara Ann’s sexual expression now becomes the malevolent focus of the Matriarchal Force that is Ruth Gordon. So, Barbara Ann, taking her mother-in-law at her word (“we don’t divorce our men…” etc.) enlists Roddy in the murderous quest to get herself out of the marriage. By now, Barbara Ann has realized that her sexual satisfaction lies in the perfect narcissism of the life of the movie star, furs and flashbulbs, as promised by T. Harrison Belmont – all prefigured in the strange insouciance of the Godardian title-sequence-as-trailer iteration of the movie’s themes. At the end of the film, Barbara Ann actually becomes a movie star in the Belmont stable, even as Tuesday Weld is driving away in her Buick from all of that into her ironic, iconic apotheosis.

Fellow renegade Bruce La Bruce downplays Axelrod’s subversive re-definition of the Weld persona, but gets the Essence of Tuesday absolutely right: “A modern-day Elektra, Weld negotiated this Oedipal inversion by formulating it not as some petty rivalry between women for the sexual attention of men, but rather as a profound acting-out against the control of a variety of patriarchies, from the traditional family to the Hollywood system to America itself.”(2) Sure as shootin’, it’s Tuesday’s movie, but let’s be clear – it’s George Axelrod’s deft and wicked systems of textual manipulation and surrealist failures of sense that generate a good measure of the punk energy in Lord Love a Duck. It is a Sternbergian film maudit that you could kill a whole day playing the lipstick traces game with. Axelrod knew how to wail the wounds in the American Psyche like Charlie Parker. For us, today, we’re left alone with that oh-so-tasteful Mid-Atlantic freak Sammy Mendes. God help us.

1) Rabelais? Yup. The notorious, cosmically meaningless hot-dog scene. And Barbara Ann’s father (The Great Max Showalter’s) lustful drooling at his daughter’s body, and Showalter’s empty, mirthless Cassavetean laughter, and Harvey Korman’s prissy yet maniacal principal; All Rabelasian Grotesques.

2) La Bruce, Bruce, Pretty Poison. An excellent, perceptive primer on La Weld.

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