Metro Retro Movie Love In Conversation

Delanymania: Notes on Eight Films

May 13 2019

Best known for towering masterpieces like Dhalgren and Babel-17, Samuel R. Delany is a true polymath, working not only in speculative fiction, but as a memoirist, social historian, and occasional filmmaker. While the films themselves are somewhat incidental in his essential memoir of theater-going on the Deuce in the 1960s-90s, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, his interest in cinema is as wide-ranging as his writing. Asked to contextualize Delanymania, Delany wrote to us, “They’re films I liked early, and they contributed to my own appreciation of science fiction, films and writing (This Island Earth), and an appreciation of the cost of difference (The Boy with Green Hair, Touch of Evil), and what I wanted to do with the movement of bodies in The Orchid (Gold Diggers of 1937, The Seventh Seal).“ The curated series will screen alongside Fred Barney Taylor’s documentary The Polymath or The Life & Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman, and a selection of Delany’s own film projects, including The Orchid and collaborations with Frank Romeo.
Introduction by Nellie Killian.

This Island Earth

When my father first took me and my sister to see This Island Earth, it was the triangular TV screens and the rays they projected that fascinated me—as well as the great-headed aliens. When I looked at it more recently, what struck me was that the aliens were divided in what they thought and felt about the human scientists they abducted, limited as they were by the 1950’s technology. That is one of the reasons why I think the film is worth watching today, plus the fact that it has not gotten the sort of attention that everything from Forbidden Planet to 2001 has managed to garner.

Gold Diggers of 1937

Gold Diggers of 1937 is a screwball comedy, directed by Lloyd Bacon, with filmic genius Busby Berkeley handling the major production numbers such as the party scene where numerous couples break into song and the final production number where all is fair in love and war, which tries to equate the two and also denature the harsher memories of The Great War, more than half-a-dozen years before World War II transformed the designation “The Great War” into World War I. In the film a group of penniless women, only one of whom wants what we would recognize as a real job, are nevertheless the driving machinery behind the development of all the major incidents—using the money of the men who work.

If there is one serious note in the film, it comes at the 71st minute when Genevieve Lark, played by Glenda Farrell, declares, “It’s so hard to be good under the capitalistic system.” The film is about Lee Dixon’s dancing and Dick Powell’s dislike of insurance, even though, however comedically, he is roped into the capitalistic system much the same as the heroines Genevieve and Norma Perry (played by a very young Joan Blondell). The formal integrity of the final production number is in the image of the erasure of “No Man’s Land” and “No Woman’s Land” when the two rows of men and women collide. In that number, besides the usual cascade of female and male bodies and mostly feminine faces and smiles, there are also sudden displacements of scale to encompass Dixon’s Boop Oglethorp’s tap-dancing: Lee Dixon again. At the same time, the “theater” in which we watch all this unfold has no physical delimitations so that it appears far larger on the inside than it does on the outside. We see a number both close up and far away that has far more people than could ever fit on an actual Broadway stage, where it is presumably occurring. Genevieve’s plummet from gold digger to truth teller and Victor Moore’s (Mr. Hobart) rise up out of his slapstick hypochondria to become downright sympathetic—if not heroic—are remarkably satisfying given the absurdities of the caricatures.

The justification of the final number is one that supported dozens and dozens of films, which turned on the line, “Hey, come on, kids! Let’s put on a show!” with Dick Powell preceded by dozens of actors in similar structural roles ranging from Bobby Breen to Mickey Rooney.

The eruption of precision movement is what will go on to produce the endlessly popular dancing of the Radio City Rockettes, raised to exponential complexity of the sort you only get in an Esther Williams film (there is a hint of it in the party scene with the swimmers appearing in their backstroke one after the other in the pool) or, indeed, in half-a-dozen other Berkeley extravaganzas, in any number of his other sumptuous production numbers, in any of his Ruby Keeler or Eleanor and Dick Powell vehicles.

Touch of Evil: The Director’s Cut

In 1958 when I was 16, I was enough of a Welles fan by then, when Touch of Evil opened on 42nd St., to go to the first or second day’s showing. The whole story was very impressive, but by far the most effective scene was the one in which Mercedes McCambridge and the outlaws circle Janet Leigh’s bed, gazing down at her. I would imagine anybody coming to this series is familiar with the story of Welles’s 58-page memo to the studio with instructions for cutting that were not seen publicly until 9 years after his death. That most striking scene is now removed, and when I saw it, I, of course, missed it. The fact is, however, the whole sequence works much, much better without it, and it makes far better emotional sense rather than just inserting a spectacular image that turns the film at that point into a dream. Apparently, Welles’s daughter, Beatrice, approved. The Director’s Cut has a copy of the Welles memo that, according to Peter Bogdanovich, Welles put together after seeing the film one time.

The Seventh Seal

The Seventh Seal came to this country when I was a teenager and when my father and I were still occasionally going to the theater together. I had read about it and asked him to take me; he did. And claimed he didn’t understand the film. I thought its mysteries and recreation of the dance of death were marvelous. I remember the sound of the witch being burned at the stake, which was another moment of adolescent chills and horror. He thought it was all pretentious nonsense—and that was the end of our paired moviegoing or any further appreciation on his part of why I liked movies or why I would want to occasionally make them.

There is, by the way, a missing film in the Delany canon, which I made in the first months I was in San Francisco, called Tiresias, a super-8 extravaganza in both color and black-and-white, which involved a young man named Peter Rooney and was shot by his boyfriend, Robert Mooney, and was lost in the mail when my friend, Paul Caruso, sent it to me in New York and it never arrived, though it had indeed been “announced” in one of the blurbs to one of my science fiction novels.

Orpheus

Cocteau’s Orpheus is a film I saw several times on television. Like many other young intellectuals, I fell in love with his cinematic masterpiece Beauty & the Beast. I own it, along with Blood of a Poet and Testament of Orpheus. Orpheus per se is a recreation of Cocteau’s play of the same title, with a number of eccentric changes. I’d read the play, along with the translation of Infernal Machine (his retelling of Oedipus), in elementary school, along with books like Mr. Thompkins in Wonderland and a lot of books on math and calculus, as well as the science fiction of Sturgeon, Heinlein, and Bester. In terms of message and influence, it was simply the realization that fantasy can be both beautiful and intellectual at once.

Orpheus is an allegory of the relationship between poetry and death in terms of a modern retelling of the old myth—something that many readers of my own early work regularly accused me of doing. Often, they would look for mythological resonances where there were none because, somehow, one mythic suggestion sent them off reading significance into everything. I do remember one viewing of Orpheus, however, when I saw it on the television for the first time. I watched it very carefully sometime in the ’70s or ’80s, and while one after the other of the special effects looked incredibly clunky (and I had read several books on how they had been achieved), the final scene with the black motorcyclist taking both death and the poet off into darkness suddenly caused me to have incredible goosebumps.

It only happened that once, and I have never been able to make it occur again, but perhaps, for some of you who have or haven’t read the original play, it will do something similar.

The Thief of Baghdad

Originally I saw The Thief of Bagdad on a black-and-white television in the early '50's; color did not come in until half-a-dozen years later. I did not see it in technicolor until a few years ago. Nevertheless, I still thought it was the most wonderful fantasy I could possibly imagine. Abu (Sabu) and the Genie (Rex Ingram) opened up possibilities of characters in a world who were non-white yet, respectively, the cleverest and the strongest characters in the film. Also, they are the ones not blinded by love (i.e. June Dupre and John Justin). This made it easy for me to identify with and probably for many young non-white viewers. It was a TV favorite, and I saw it again and again before I was 15. Only later did I learn that one of the most spectacular of its fantasy landscapes was our own Grand Canyon, when World War II made it infeasible to shoot the film in North Africa. You are only seeing the trailer, from which the great idol with the all-seeing eye must be stolen. It’s only on screen for a few minutes rather than dominating the screen for several scenes and several minutes. The full sequence from the complete film is what the series of dreams that gave me The Jewels of Aptor transferred into my post-marriage unconscious: My first novel would not read in anyway the way it does if it had not been for this film and the strange repeating dreams of my childhood about a mixed-race-Sabu-like character, who bore the name Snake.

One question that used to be repeatedly asked of people in those days was whether you dreamed in color or black and white. I always dreamed in color, though sometimes the dreams were the dreams of a black-and-white movie or a black-and-white television show. That also leaves its mark on The Jewels of Aptor. My assistant says that he has heard, if you go blind, you eventually start dreaming in black and white.

The Boy with the Green Hair

I saw The Boy with Green Hair at the same summer camp at which I also saw a whole series of wonderful classics, including Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, and Marty, along with many, many others over the five years I attended. I have not seen it since (except possibly once on black-and-white television, where it made it absolutely no sense), but scenes stay with me nevertheless, such as the hero washing his hair and the soap coming away from his hair, which had been changed green by the washing, as well as its moral on the ostracism of those who are different. It seemed important at the time, and as a gay youngster who was terribly afraid that I would be ostracized for just that, it still seems important, though my actual experience, once I and my young wife left our various homes in order to live in a neighborhood (The East Village), where “that sort of thing” would be more acceptable, have always found Marianne Moore’s suggestion that one should tell as much truth as one is comfortable telling to be adequate, even as I took Baldwin to task in at least one essay for wanting to tell all the truth you could bear and haughtily claimed, “No, you should tell all the truth,” though I think that was just growing up.