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                                                        Flickhead

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Nastassia Kinski, Cat People

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Bringing Up Baby

By Richard Armstrong

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    For years there have been reports of big cat sightings across Britain. But figures just out from the British Big Cats Society (BBCS, www.britishbigcats.org) report 2,123 sightings between April 2004 and July 2005, mainly in the South-West. In July 2005 a skull was found by a Devon farmer. It was identified as that of a puma. There have been attacks on horses, 35 incidents of sheep being snatched, and several plaster casts of paw prints have been taken. Since the Dangerous Animals Act was passed in 1976, there have been at least 23 releases of big cats into the wild. They included panthers, pumas, lynxes, caracals and ocelots. 典he thought of big cats roaming the British countryside has captured many people痴 imaginations, says Sophie Stafford of BBC Wildlife magazine. 典he British Big Cats Society is now tantalizingly close to being able to provide conclusive proof of their presence.
    In the Cornish town of Penwicken in 1986 there was a spate of cases in which babies went missing and were subsequently discovered dead and dreadfully mauled. At the time there was an independent cinema in the town called the Bijou. Opened in 1923, it was a brick-built High Street affair typical of small towns up and down the country in the pre-multiplex era. But by 1980 it was failing and was bought by an academic from the nearby Falmouth College of Art. Frank Hughes had been among the first wave of academics to teach Film Studies in the 1970s when the subject was taking off. A humanist, his tastes leaned towards Ford, Hawks, Bresson, Satyajit Ray. He adored the Italian Neo-realists. But following an accident he had retired from teaching and now took less and less interest in the movies and in the day-to-day running of the Bijou. He and his young partner Felicity, one of his ex-students, now had a baby and Frank left the programming, securing of prints, and drafting of publicity to someone else. Besides, nowadays he was continually immersed in another definitive study of Howard Hawks.
    Irene Dobson had been running things since before Frank bought the place and knew the Bijou back to front. She had started there as an usherette and loved movies. She was an alumna of the British Film Institute痴 Extra Mural program. Her diploma hung in the duty manager痴 office. The first time she saw Taxi Driver was a special moment for her. She went all the way to the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1980 just to see the reds in Mean Streets. She liked the Italians Bertolucci, Bava, Argento, middle and late Visconti. She had a worn copy of The Leopard which she liked to curl up and watch on her night off. She was nearing 35 and wanted to run an art house herself. She felt 溺r. Hughes owed her the Bijou. Secretly, she resented the way he neglected the place. She would take that portrait of John Wayne down in a trice if she had her way. She disliked that simpering Felicity too. But Irene did not readily say what was on her mind. Thursday night was bingo night; it made her spit.

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Getting catty: Jane Randolph, Simone Simon and Kent Smith in Cat People (click to enlarge).
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    In April and May when the killings began, Irene had been running a double bill of the two versions of Cat People in the late slot. At first, the atmospheric 1942 original passed little muster. Irene noted each late arrival. But after the second or third night a particularly striking locandina poster for Argento痴 Cat O Nine Tails which adorned the pillar on the cinema痴 facade had been daubed with red paint. The following afternoon angry parents picketed the Cat People matinee. There were letters in the local paper. After a week, a council meeting was called at which it was suggested that either the program be changed or the cinema be closed while 鍍hings got back to normal. The proprietor urged 泥obbin to heed local feelings. Irene pointed at the healthy box office, recalling sizable queues of art students from Falmouth and whey-faced loners you never saw for the Confessions films the Bijou was obliged to show for the town trade, or for that matter for The Terminator. But Frank persisted: 展hat about Bringing Up Baby for next week? Irene looked at him. 哲o, perhaps not. Rio Lobo was a crowd-puller in its day! How about Rio Lobo, Dobbin? Irene痴 black hair shone as she held the Cat People double over for another week. Rio Lobo was unavailable, Mr. Hughes, she told him. By Wednesday, she took quiet comfort from the rumor that the local film critic who had at first chided Irene痴 choices at such a difficult time, had secretly come back to see the films and then wrote glowing reviews. (The piece was spiked and the critic was cautioned by his editor.)

    By the end of the second week, there were more reports of babies going missing and parents warned children that if they didn稚 go to bed 禅he Cat would get them. This time Frank ordered Irene in no uncertain terms to change the late show. If the takings had continued, Irene was planning to invite Paul Schrader to come and talk, since he was in London for the premiere of Mishima. Meanwhile, the program notes over which she had slaved for two sleepless nights, were confiscated by Felicity after a councilor privately dubbed them 都ubversive.
    Unable to secure either Rio Lobo or Rio Bravo, Irene scheduled I Was a Male War Bride and Bringing Up Baby in the late slot. Attendance fell dramatically, and some wondered why Bringing Up Baby was being shown in the dead of night when no normal person was awake. Others queried whether it should be shown at all. Bringing Up Baby was moved to the matinee slot. Nobody came. When Felicity suggested that 鍍hat woman didn稚 do enough to publicize the program, Frank smiled sheepishly. Somebody at the council began querying Irene痴 job record. A month later Irene Dobson resigned as programmer of the Bijou. People said it was probably a good thing: 鉄he was strange, that one.

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    Then one hot afternoon towards the end of July another child was snatched and died of shock before whatever it was proceeded to feast on its remains. A few days later on a side street near the Bijou what was left of another infant was found, its limbs so mauled that stringy ligaments were visible through the viscera. It was Frank and Felicity痴 baby. Nearby, there was some vomit. The Bijou showed no films for a month out of respect for the grieving couple. The police again turned up nothing. Intent upon finding out what was responsible for these dreadful acts, a vigilante committee was set up to scour the hills and lanes around the town. A man was found, a loner known for hanging around the Bijou at night, and brought to the police station for questioning. Two days later he was convicted for loitering. But nothing and nobody was ever brought to book for the Penwicken killings. Financially, the Bijou never recovered and the cinema was gutted for supermarket space in 1988. Eddie Biesel was a regular at the late shows in the 80s. He remembers Irene Dobson.

    鉄he was a real original, the best thing that happened to moviegoing in Penwicken. She used to sit knitting as the queues filed past the box office with that contented steady gaze of hers. Her taste in movies was pretty unusual for someone who wouldn稚 say boo to a goose. She once ran The Conformist in a double bill with Sternberg痴 An American Tragedy. (I didn稚 get it, but then I went to see them!) She had such a feeling for mime that to have her talk you through the final scene between Chaplin and the flower girl in City Lights was a treat! She always had proper program notes. And she owned some great old posters. The Bijou had real personality. None of the carrot cake hospitality industry bullshit you get today.
    釘ut she was treated badly. People said that she used to put toenail clippings in pre-paid junk mail envelopes and post them. The vicar told everyone that she used to show 宋ideo nasties at the kids matinees. Some said she had seen so many movies she could see in the dark! Others said she couldn稚 blink! She looked hunted the last time I spoke to her. About two years after all that blew over, I think I glimpsed her at a screening of The Leopard at the National Film Theatre. She was on her own.

This account is based on reports in the St. Austell & Mevagissey Post from 1986 and on private correspondence with Eddie Biesel.

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Updates:

    Shortly after the above piece appeared, I received a letter from my correspondent Eddie Biesel. In it he recalled how, following the closure of the Bijou in 1988, the people of Penwicken were invited to a sale of paraphernalia relating to the cinema痴 glory days. In amongst the posters, lobby cards and old ushers uniforms there was a dusty faded box file with Irene Dobson痴 name neatly typed on a label on the lid.
    In amongst the correspondence with distributors and print couriers, papers relating to the taxes and upkeep of the building, faded copies of program annotations, there were some random notes on individual films scribbled or typed up on lined foolscap paper. Irene Dobson was not a professional writer so her style was not particularly polished. Sometimes her enthusiasm got the better of her judgment. But her insights could be provocative and astute. She was a dedicated cinephile and, like the best cinephiliac writing, her prose fairly springs from the page when enthused by some overlooked and fugitive pleasure. I think the following observations, written at various times between 1975 and 1987, capture something of her unique sensibility and presence as a moviegoer. 由ichard Armstrong

My Darling Clementine

    When she strolls into the saloon, just by her presence Clementine Carter brings an end to all the rough talk, silently bidding good men live up to their destinies. In this role Cathy Downs, only 22 at the time, elicits a reverence usually reserved for much older, more experienced actresses. Silence falls as she enters the smoky back room to find Doc Holliday. Later there is a super profile shot of her with the desert dusk behind her little brunette head. A true American princess! Later she bides her time in the empty saloon and Wyatt Earp strolls in, unaware that she is there. For a brief moment, we see this grave upstanding man standing in the light from the doorway through the eyes of a young woman who is falling in love for perhaps the only time in her entire life, and all of a sudden she is home: 的 love your town in the morning, Marshal, the air痴 so clean and clear.
    鉄hall we gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river, the townsfolk sing, luring this genteel pair to make their way to the church social. Hesitant, coltish, Wyatt shyly looks at Clementine standing beside him, debating with himself over whether to ask her to dance with him. He plucks up the courage, she removes her jacket as if she has been waiting for these words all her life. The final shot of Clem finds her, like he was in the saloon doorway, a clean upstanding figure amid a sea of shifting sand and sagebrush.

Cat People

    Why does Irena visit Alice at the pool? Does she like to look at her? To eat? Like a canary? 典here are some things a woman doesn稚 want other women to understand, Irena tells Oliver. But I think there are some things Irena wants only Alice to understand. 的rena痴 perfumestrongsweet, Alice says as she returns to the flat where the beastly psychiatrist has come to call.
    Perhaps Alice likes the smell of Irena just as Irena likes the shape of Alice. And Alice is a good girl. Conscientious, always wanting to go to work, take down figures from Mr. Reed like a secretary, like Carol Richman, Hildy Johnson. I admire Alice!

I Walked with a Zombie

    Betsy Connell is drawn to Mr. Holland because there is 都omething clean, honest about him. When she calculates how much Rand drinks because she is a nurse and used to measuring fluids from little bottles with her eyes, Betsy seems such a capable girl. But when she meets Mrs. Holland near the staircase at dead of night they are like wraiths meeting in Bauhaus.
    Mrs. Holland is like Irena in Cat People living in limbo. Meanwhile, Betsy and Mr. Holland communicate on an unspoken spiritual level. The strange thing is that the film wants the black magic all around them to fight the rational voices of medicine. How much research went into the skull and circle of stones, the fetishes, Mr. Carrefour guarding the crossroads, when Betsy escorts Mrs. Holland to the voudoun ceremony at the 践ome Fort? How much of the ceremony is authentic from proper books? I keep thinking of Maya Deren. Did Jacques Tourneur know Deren痴 films? During the ceremony Mrs. Holland looks like a Renaissance icon of the Madonna.
    The shadows of the grillwork, then branches and leaves as Betsy is awoken by the strange man in her room and stumbles into the garden writes the strangeness on her body like a tattoo. Can any of us be the same after that night?

Bringing Up Baby

    Miss Swallow is commendably dedicated to David痴 career. 溺y future wife has always regarded me as a man of some dignity. Then why is Miss Swallow wearing a pince nez when we last see her? She must have good eyesight. She is not very old. Miss Swallow is right優avid is a butterfly! And that is why I don稚 like Bringing Up Baby.

That the following notes were given a title suggests that Dobson had a fuller piece in mind:

Marie de 7 7

    In Carnival of Souls Mary drives her Chevrolet Impala through the night like Marion Crane, a cold fish in a graceful steel antelope who lets no man in. She manages to wrest her car from a ditch without help. Then there is a close-up of Mary in bed that reminded me of the somnambulist Mrs. Holland in I Walked with a Zombie. Then there is beastly Mr. Linden and the close-up of his piggy eye. (I wish I was Buuel!)
    Later on in the department store Mary changes in a cubicle. What a pretty little black dress! I love her mouth like Sophia Loren, Monica Vitti and did Candace Hilligoss have rhinoplasty? But then Dr. Samuels seizes her by the arm in the street, gripping her so hard it must have hurt! (I hate the way men assumed that they could just handle a woman in the old films.) 的致e no desire for the close company of other people. That痴 telling Dr. Samuels! And Mr. Linden is so awful. And Harvey doesn稚 let the actor court me or you. Mr. Linden痴 prurience, his sexual aggressiveness and stupidity alienate us and that痴 an end to it. The film seems to will M to go back to the old carnival in search of her ghostly dance partner in his nice black suit.
    What is so lovely about the film is its odd mixture of the natural and the macabre. When the little bird starts singing as Mary returns to the living, and the sun glints through the leaves in the park, it is nothing short of springtime. And the light shimmering on the water before the zombie heads appear is so relaxing on the eyes. And the play of shadows beneath the slats of an arcade make such pleasant patterns against Mary痴 face, bust and tummy. What M knows is precisely what we cannot know about ourselves; that she is going to die.
Irene Dobson

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  • Following the online publication of the above, Eddie Biesel was approached by the lady herself, now living on the outskirts of London and flattered that her thoughts on film aesthetics should have seen the light of day years after they were written. Happily for us, enclosed with her letter were some more recent extracts from her writings.
        Following the Penwicken incident in which she was veritably hounded from the town, Dobson moved to Warwick in 1991 where she read for a BA in Film Studies at the University. Her scholarship can be felt in the new amplitude of her writing voice. Couched in an assured grasp of prose language and film form, the following extracts also elaborate the characteristically Dobsonian theme of the woman alone and the plight of the outsider with her usual grave and singular honesty. These pieces were written between 1997 and 2000.
    Richard Armstrong

    Dance with a Stranger

        In the early scene in which Ruth dances with David, she is wearing a satin band around her pale throat. Later on, she sits on a beach with Desmond Cussen. She is holding her head back to catch the sun and is wearing a scarf around her throat. These moments sound ominous knells of the hangman痴 rope.
        Like the classical Woman痴 Picture, Dance with a Stranger records the biography of a heroine not only scorned in love but scorned by society too. The scene in which Ruth stands in the road outside the house in which David and his upper crust friends enjoy themselves looks back to the climax of Stella Dallas in which Stella gazes through the window at her daughter marrying well. Finally, the rope severs Ruth from the world around her as surely as it will rip one vertebra from another.

    Far from Heaven

        Todd Haynes reads the crippling mores of 1950s America as a series of symptoms seen through Kathy痴 eyes. Her little girl is rejected at the dance class by the other girls and their mothers when it is rumored that Kathy consorts with a black man. After the little boy is chastised for going in the segregated pool in Miami the pool is seen empty as the white parents pull their children free of the 祖ontaminated water. We are back in the disease zone of Safe.

    The Age of Innocence

        The 田ountry in which concepts such as 吐riends and 鍍rust don稚 matter and to which Newland and Ellen wish to escape exists out of sight between the lines of the discourses of letter, telegram and even Scorsese痴 credits, which bind them socially. And in this 蘇ieroglyphic society the love between Newland and Ellen must also remain hieroglyphic. The log slips in the fire grate when he visits her. The hand he extends her is tacitly rejected. It recalls the moment when they first met and she boldly extended her hand which he didn稚 know what to do with!
        Like the artist in Dieterle痴 Portrait of Jennie, Newland comes away from Ellen at the end unsure whether any of what he had with her was real or whether it was dreamt.

    Alice

        The arbitrariness of the scene at Dorothy痴 in which men ceaselessly pursue Alice shows how we women find it absurd and oppressive to be pursued by unwanted men. That it happens here because of something the men ate makes it even less to do with anything Alice has done!

    Body Snatchers

        The scene in which the little boy has executed a finger painting which is radically different from the other children痴 is definitely chilling. We致e all at school been petrified of appearing to be different.

    Taxi Driver

        Cybill is ethereal. Her disembodied head in the back of Travis Bickle痴 cab has her seeming to float above the action.

    Dance with a Spectre

        鉄omething separates me from other people, says Mary in Carnival of Souls. It is the editing with its unconventional splitting of an action. When Mary dashes around the streets and the bus station, an action seems incomplete, say her walking towards a car seeking help or walking around the station. Only when Mary goes back to the disused fairground do the takes become more fluid, even if there is causal disjunction between her and the space she is in as gongs sound for no reason, a mattress glides down a slide.
        Carnival of Souls has a New Wavey look to it. It must be the improvised tone of the acting, the sudden shifts of perspective from high angle long shot to close-up in Mary痴 first job, or those shots of places to which she feels she must go, zooms suggesting that the fairground pavilion and the mountains are landscapes of Mary痴 unconscious perceived by her in innocuous places like the car wash. This would all seem to make sense as Carnival of Souls was released in 1962 when the French influence on low budget filmmaking must have been pronounced.
        Even more unusual is the debt Herk Harvey痴 little film owed the experimental films of Maya Deren. Carnival of Souls is, like Deren痴 At Land, exploring a woman痴 odd odyssey like Mary痴 from water to land. In At Land Deren痴 beautiful amphibian makes her progress from sea to land and back again, exploring her soul in a topographical way as Captain Ahab does in Moby Dick. Like in Carnival of Souls, the woman is the only unifying principle in At Land. We never see the landscape in its entirety and never when Deren is not there. The film is in thrall to Deren痴 looks, where she looks and how she looks, and her curiosity, her own compulsion to reveal the strange universe of the film. As in all of At Land, Mary痴 odyssey is without sound, and she too determines how we negotiate the funfair, and how we feel desire and curiosity before the image. She makes me feel like her, for her. As in At Land, I always want to be somewhere where I am not. Both films invite me to travel into, as well as over, the landscape, rather like the free association I find in my sleep. Deren herself said that At Land deals with the 妬nability to achieve a stable, adjusted relationship to (the world痴) elements. Carnival of Souls too is about a woman who isn稚 really there. Yet while the slippage can be felt in Mary negotiating the dilapidated and decaying pavilion, there are also moments, shots smuggled in, when something looks at her. Finally, we see her dancing with her suitor at the carousel. Maya Deren痴 girl chases a chess pawn from place to place. Mary is the pawn, found at last.

    Irene Dobson

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    I am grateful to Eddie Biesel for bringing the writings of Irene Dobson to my attention.

    Richard Armstrong.