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Scorched Earth

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NOVEMBER 16, 2011

There is something about the American South, with its decaying social mores and weary livers, that we are inexplicably drawn to, like that dark and drawling stranger in the back of the bar, hidden by smoke. Perhaps it’s because we, too, have fallen on hard times, settled for banality and taken to the drink for comfort.

Meet the Southern Gothic, a genre that knows such cultural depression more than any other. Its roots are literary, furrowed into our topography by the likes of William Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell, Tennessee Williams and Flannery O’Connor. Like a late, whispery night on a dimly lit porch, drink-in-hand, the Southern Gothic revels in whiskey-soused nostalgia and weary souls of the past. The gauntlet was passed down from writers to filmmakers, who took tropes of the Southern Gothic off the page and refashioned them for cinema.

Last week, the Pacific Film Archive began its series “Southern (Dis)comfort” with Fritz Lang’s “House by the River” (1950), a mash-up of noir and gothic figures centered on the prototypical writer figure — a Southern staple — caught up in an accidental murder. This was followed by “The Fugitive Kind,” a picture starring Marlon Brando and directed by the recently deceased Sidney Lumet from Tennessee Williams’s “Orpheus Descending.” But fear not! The series runs until December 11, concluding with John Huston’s 1979 “Wise Blood” for PFA’s last show of the semester.

This Friday is Stephen Roberts’s “The Story of Temple Drake,” a 1933 Southern Gothic treasure molded from William Faulkner’s novel “Sanctuary.” This is an old Hollywood take on the genre, featuring Miriam Roberts as the titular Southern belle pitted against a lusty gang leader.

On Saturday, PFA screens Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s unjustly forgotten Tennessee Williams adaptation, “Suddenly Last Summer” (1959). Just as Mankiewicz inaugurated a connotative yet kept style of Hollywood filmmaking ten years before with “All About Eve,” “Suddenly” opens up the kind of sexual repressed hothouse that defines ’60s cinema. With the divine Katharine Hepburn as cuckoo spinster Violet Venable — a character now somewhat reincarnated in Jessica Lange’s character Constance on the FX series “American Horror Story” — Mankiewicz’s film dwells in a murky swamp of confused sexual identity and hysteria. It also stars a post-face-disfiguring-car-accident Montgomery Clift — still delicious — and bestie Elizabeth Taylor.

The wealthy Violet’s son Sebastian has died under mysterious circumstances, and she has enlisted the psychoanalytic help of Dr. Cukrowicz (Clift) to cure her PTSD-headcase niece Catherine (Taylor), who witnessed the boy’s death while they were vacationing in Spain (last summer). The scorching heat of New Orleans gets to everybody’s heads, literally, as the word “lobotomy” is thrown around more than once. What did Cathy witness that was so horrible, that killed the venerable Venable? The film leaves us somewhat in the dark in regards to its central mystery, as we never see Sebastian’s face but, rather, only his backside (how apropos, as we come to learn of his sexual identity).

Taylor did “Cat On a Hot Tin Roof” just a year before and while she isn’t quite as sexy here (mostly just totally insane, shrill, creepy-brilliant), her performance is among her best. And, to boot, there’s plenty of dreamy 35mm torpedo bra action found here. Though by the climax, the film plummets to a profoundly ridiculous level of bathos, 60 years have worn well on this movie. It could be a destined kitsch classic, and certainly one of the freakiest parent-sibling relationships onscreen. Sebastian Venable, Oedipus is calling.

On December 3, “Southern (Dis)comfort” moves from the lowlands of sexual impotence to the withering heights of the dilapidated-chic antebellum estate of Tiger Tail in master auteur Elia Kazan’s 1956 “Baby Doll.” Like “Suddenly, Last Summer,” this film is adapted from a Tennessee Williams play, and is perhaps most representative of the themes of this series than any I have seen.

Bulbous-nosed cotton gin owner Archie Lee (Karl Malden) eagerly awaits, like a hungry Humbert Humbert, for his 19-year-old wife Baby Doll (a smart-mouthed Carroll Baker) to turn 20 so they can consummate their already-fraught marriage, as per an agreement that came with the dowry. But thumb-sucking hoyden Baby Doll proves thornier than Mr. Aaachie Lee anticipated in this tawdry classic of sexual repression along the Mississippi. These lives are as tottering as the manor they inhabit. Despite accumulating numerous accolades, “Baby Doll” was among the most maligned of its time; though, by today’s standards, its sexual undercurrents work more by implication than full-on, bare-ass eroticism. Here, sexuality is bottled up, washed down with a drink and sent a-floatin’ down the river.

Other films on the docket include Don Siegel’s “The Beguiled,” a not-oft-seen mystery picture starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page, and Anthony Mann’s “God’s Little Acre,” a tale of horny young women and gold-digging. Taken at once, all the films in “Southern (Dis)comfort” prefer non-resolution to restitution, and the sly wink to the slap-in-the-face, because that is truer to life, and for these folks, anything else is just mendacity. The ten movies in this series offer a rueful, bruising inquiry into the Southern way-of-livin’. Grand ambitions aside, they’re just a pleasure to watch, akin to the feeling of a lazy day, sweltering sunshine and a cool, clinking glass poised to topple in a world where “pour me!” and “poor me!” mean the same thing.

Ryan Lattanzio is the lead film critic.

NOVEMBER 16, 2011