Friday, October 10, 2014

Josef von Sternberg | Morocco

safe sex
by Douglas Messerli

Jules Furthman (screenplay, based on a novel by Benno Vigny), Josef von Sternberg (director) Morocco / 1930

Josef von Sternberg’s appealing 1930 film, Morocco, is a curious work—in part simply because it is difficult to explain just why anyone might find it appealing. Certainly the film makes a few nods to being an adventure: the setting is in the exotic outpost in Mogador, Morocco—made even more exotic through von Sternberg’s use of a far-flung range of sets and costumes, transforming the spaces into a mix of a never-ending bazaar, a gypsy camp, a backstage play, and a desert battleground—in which, at moments, we actually experience the remnants of wartime fighting and the occasional free moments of its highly testosteroned soldiers. Yet the viewer recognizes that if he is truly seeking an adventure story, he should look elsewhere, perhaps to Beau Geste, Gunga Din, The Life of a Bengal Lancer or, more obviously, King Kong—all filmed in the 1930s,  two even starring Gary Cooper.

     Many have described Morocco as being a great romance, and there is little question that von Sternberg was one of the most romantically-inclined (a born Romantic and an inveterate romantic) directors of the period. And clearly, something immediately clicks between the new singer in town, Amy Jolly (Marlene Dietrich) and the Foreign Legion private, Tom Brown (Gary Cooper) which results in an attraction that, despite the enormous wealth and suave demeanor of the outrageous named Kennington La Bessière (Adolphe Menjou)—who offers a weary sexually-seasoned woman everything she might need to salve her heart—she is willing to give up everything for Brown. But strangely this absurdly romantic duo only kiss twice, and the first time is certainly not very convincing if you compare it, for example, to the first kiss of Greta Garbo and John Gilbert (also a former Léggionaire) in Flesh and the Devil of just three years before. In the most intimate meeting between Jolly and Brown hardly anything one might describe as “romantic” happens; in fact, they both use up their precious time trying to explain to one another how they are not truly to be trusted, suggesting they are both a bit exhausted from their lives of intense love-making. Finally, both try everything they can to convince the other that they don’t really “give a damn” about one another. So, despite the fevered décor and the heat of the air (signified by the intense rhythm of perpetually beating fans) in which they intact their two ineffectual encounters, no spark seems to ignite them, and the scenes in which they play out their muted desires, one has to admit, are quite cinematically static, with not even a lush musical bar to egg them on. Their “romance,” in fact, is diluted by Tom Brown’s attempted murder and his knifing of the two local assailants—after which he can only warn his would-be lover something to the effect that she better “get lost,” because “there’s going to be trouble.” And trouble does follow with Brown’s arrest, the suspicion of his being romantically involved with the Adjutant’s wife, and his punishment of being sent off into battle at the Amalfi Pass.

     One might even be tempted to describe von Sternberg’s movie as a half-hearted attempt at a musical created to show off the cabaret musical talents of his beloved Dietrich: after all, she sings three songs, “Give Me a Man,” “Quand l’amor meurt,” and the bawdy Karl Hajos and Leo Robin ditty, “What Am I Paid for My Apple?” back to back. What can you say? Dietrich is Dietrich: beautiful to watch and listen to. But Morocco would never be confused with other popular musicals of the day such as Hit the Deck, Kismet, and even Cecile De Mille’s naughty Madam Satan. Besides, the scenes in which she sings these songs easily reveal that the director has something else in mind.

      Rather than being a true adventure, a musical, or even a real romance, what most defines von Sternberg’s work might be a kind of sex comedy—but not in the way things usually happen in that genre. First, I think, it’s important that we admit that Morocco, behind all its décor and heaving layers of chiaroscuro, is a love triangle played out by three individuals who are all a bit worn out from their past lives. They’ve all come together in order to get away from the sexual liaisons and lurid business transactions they’ve endured previously. And they’re also soured on the opposite sex, particularly Jolly and Brown.

    In passing, I should explain that I also see La Bessière as equally disenchanted, if not because of his past relationships, simply because of personal nature; in terms of the mores of the film, the wealthy La Bessière is an effeminized being who “loves” Jolly so passively—offering her only possessions instead of kisses and hugs—that he hardly blinks at having to give her up, suggesting his only happiness is her happiness, a viewpoint which transforms him almost into a subservient eunuch.

     But then that is not so very different from the role Brown himself plays in abandoning Jolly so that she can enjoy the wealth and protection that La Bessière can offer her, and becoming—as my young movie-going companion Pablo described him—“mean,” rejecting her at the healing way-station when she has clearly made the decision that he matters to her. Despite the woman sitting upon his lap, Brown has been quite literally crying in his suds—busily carving out a love-post like some rugby-playing schoolboy, after whom he was probably named—an act that surely would have made Hemingway snort with derision.

      Indeed, as Jolly makes clear from the beginning she too is dismissive of popular sexual norms, appearing in her premier scene at the hurly-girly Lo Tinto’s transgressive nightclub dressed as a man and, in the midst of the act, asking for Madame Ceasar’s (Eve Southern) decoratively-worn flower—and in that act symbolically stealing her virginity, sealing it up with a mouth-to-mouth kiss. It hardly matters that Madame Caesar has no virginity to abandon, for, in a sense, through that act Jolly is proclaiming not only her preference, at the moment, for her own kind, but is hinting that she may soon return the woman’s sexual purity by stealing her lover way.

     During their encounter together soon after, both Jolly and Brown speak with great disdain about the opposite sex, making it clear that neither of them is to be trusted. And both speak of their failures to revitalize themselves in their relationships with the opposite sex. If Brown has inexplicably joined the Legion to get away from his lurid past, so too does Jolly explain that that there is a foreign legion for women as well. Their conversation summarizes their respective positions:

                 Tom Brown: What in the name of 10,000 corporals did you come to

                                       a country like this for anyways?                         

                 Amy Jolly: I understand that men are never asked why they entered

                                    the Foreign Legion...

     Tom Brown: That's right. They never asked me and if they had I

                          wouldn't have told. When I crashed the Legion, I ditched

                          the past.

     Amy Jolly: There's a foreign legion of women, too. But we have no

                        uniforms, no flags, and no medals when *we* are brave;

                        no wound stripes where we are hurt.

     Tom Brown: Look here, is there anything I can do to help you?

     Amy Jolly: No. I've thought that before. Or, do you think you can

                        restore my faith in men?

     Tom Brown: Not me. You got the wrong man for that! Anybody who has

                           faith in me is a sucker.

     Amy Jolly: You better go now... I am beginning to like you.

     Tom Brown: I've told women about everything a man can say.

                          I'm going to tell you something I've never told a woman

                          before: I wish I'd met you ten years ago.

     Even though they are clearly attracted to one another, these two hurt beings realize that if they dare to get involved sexually, it can only result in further pain and suffering. And, in that sense, they purposely pose as beings who are asexual, particularly to anyone whom they might respect. Sex, as Brown suggests, always involves trust, a faith that is sure to be misplaced. Furthermore, what can either of them truly give to one another: Brown a penniless private, Jolly a needy woman of loose morality? The only thing they can honestly offer each other is a later meeting.

     When Jolly, soon after, breaks her vow of asexuality and goes after her man, it ends, predictably, in a series of further betrayals, with Brown rejecting Madame Caesar and Madame Caesar ordering up her former lover’s murder. Sex in this world is not only not generative but is non-regenerative.

     In the very next scene, Brown is caught standing next to his guard with his leg resting upon his hip in the manner of another eccentrically asexual comic, Harpo Marx.* Bodily contact is definitely safer with the same sex. After all, isn’t a man’s decision to join up with the Legion similar to the decision of women of previous ages to get themselves to a convent, to join up in a world so closeted that heterosexual relationships are restricted and controlled. The film even begins with Brown being dressed down for having let his eyes stray to the body of a nearby native girl.

     One might describe Morocco, accordingly as a kind of comic burlesque about “safe sex,” a position, one might argue, similar to one in which the director himself had been positioned in relationship to his beloved star, Dietrich. Is it any wonder, as Cooper reportedly complained, that von Sternberg filmed the tall, lanky Cooper so that he too had to keep “looking up” to the leading lady. Von Sternberg was no fool, and, of course, he knew, from the example of his fellow German-speaking Wagner, that by denying his audience something that they had come to expect, they’d long for it even more. The woman we see hugging onto Brown’s towering frame throughout the movie offers him no more sexual satisfaction than the two dolls (racist representations, presumably, of black sexual fulfillment) that Jolly carries about with her everywhere. They are simply sexual surrogates.

      To find sexual satisfaction, from this film’s inevitably macho perspective, the woman has to be able to give up everything, to toss off her shoes, as Jolly does, and wade out into the desert sand to follow behind her man like the other sexual slaves trailing the Legion everywhere they go. It hardly matters how she might be dressed, what her gender might be.** In a few hours, it is clear, the wind will whip everything away. But at the end of a long day’s wandering, at least sex is  a real possibility. After all, she’s entering a fairy tale, isn’t she?


*Although Harpo is presented as a chaser of the fairer sex, he gives equal treatment to the male characters in most of his movies, grabbing their legs, and using their torsos as handy resting posts.
**It reminds me a bit of Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, where, after Port Moresby and his wife Kit’s relationship falls apart in Morocco, Kit (autobiographically based on Bowles’ lesbian wife Jane) dresses in a robe and wanders off into the desert to be picked up by a passing Arab trader who hides her from his harem, the women believing she must be a beautiful young boy.

Los Angeles, October 10, 2014

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