ROVIN' AND RAVIN' WITH MIKE
Copyright © 2008, 2004, 2003, 2000 by Michael Segers, All rights reserved
Getting Lost on the Way to the Dietrich Festival
This week Hollywood offered a terminal illness melodrama that the studio did not
make available for critical review (suggesting the film itself may be terminal),
another in the weird-child thriller
genre (which has been in decline since Rosemary’s Baby started the
whole thing), and a comedy (?) about strike-breakers. At least, that gave me the
idea of going on strike. While the honchos in the executive suites in the upper
floors of the Peanut.org corporate towers allow me a few liberal ideas (I’m
just a writer), I was afraid they wouldn’t be amused if I organized the whole
writing division to walk out.
Instead, I decided to stay home and do something I’ve wanted to do for a long
time, write about the films of Marlene Dietrich. So, with monsoon rains washing
the yard, I settled in with my Marlene Dietrich video tapes, the official Rovin’
& Ravin’ cats and parrot and an unofficial jug of California’s not quite
Four films later, the parrot was mourning the death of Prof. Rath’s canary (The
Blue Angel), the cats were wondering what happened to X-27’s feline
companion (Dishonored), and I started to write. (You don’t need to know
the status of the jug.) Dietrich is to me so important as a figure in the
development of the twentieth century and in my development as a viewer of and
writer about film that I wrote a whole article before I ever even mentioned the
films. So, the Peanut.org Marlene Dietrich Film Festival is postponed until
Hollywood fails to come through some other weekend.
Here we sit in cyberspace’s answer to the Blue Angel, chatting (only between songs), but the emphasis will be on words and ideas, not images. Pictures of Marlene Dietrich reinforce the perception of her as a camp icon, just another pretty face, and she is much more than that. Visible goddesses may be sweet, but those unseen truly inspire us... but who can resist one of the most famous icons of movie history, Marlene as Lola Lola in The Blue Angel?
Marlene as Bijou in The Seven Sinners
Dietrich was the consummate celebrity, and celebrity is the defining concept of a century in which the distance between illusion and reality has shrunk. From Oscar Wilde’s declaration of his own genius to Andy Warhol’s prediction that we would all be famous for fifteen minutes, fame has been the name of the game, a game played out in ever more invasive media. And so, the unique Marlene Dietrich becomes, at least as an icon, the most typical person of our century. Once we move into the fields of image and archetype, we must go slowly, because it is pointless to confuse the actress and her roles. Dietrich in her trousers (and out of them), Dietrich in her marriage-as-friendship, Dietrich in the arms of all the lovers that her own daughter recounts, Dietrich perhaps more than anyone else stormed the Bastille of sexual inhibition to initiate the sexual revolution.
Last year, Kevin
Costner complained that his full frontal nudity was cut from his film For
Love of the Game. I was tempted to write an article titled "Marlene
Dietrich and Kevin Costner: Stark Naked," in which I would hold up
Dietrich’s great nude scene in Song of Songs as a model for Costner and
others. The sculptor who loves Lily, Dietrich’s character, wants her to model
nude for him, and Lily agrees. The robe slips slowly off her shoulders. We see
it fall at her feet. Shy at first, then increasingly confident, even proud, she
stands before us nude. We see nothing between shoulders and feet, and we do not
need to see any more, which would only be so much less. Dietrich acts nude, to
convey the whole complex of emotions that Lily feels, and we understand.
At one point in her
multi-imaged career Madonna took on the image of Marlene Dietrich, but the image
was all. Madonna has laid it all out before us in a series of outrageous images
and performances that are questionable not so much for their moral concerns as
for matters of taste. No matter how many times she re-invents herself, her image
(and in our time, what is the difference between image and self?), she must wear
her indiscretions like a tattoo.
I recently read that
an actress, nameless here, had been dropping her drawers in just
about every film as a career move. Does such exposure really help her? Dietrich
played the role of a sex goddess, and played it successfully, into her
seventies. Did anyone except Dietrich really believe she was still sexy? (Did
she herself?) If she had shown all her cards (and everything else), she could
not have so powerfully stirred imaginations for so long.
There is an American
president, and we do not need to muddy the discussion by naming him, who has
reinterpreted Henry Kissinger’s maxim, "Power is the greatest
aphrodisiac." This president, apparently, is stimulated by his own power.
He finds his sexual energy in his political power. Marlene Dietrich drew her
power from her sexual energy. In our time, we have found it difficult to tell in
which direction the energy flows, and people like Marlene Dietrich and more than
one American president have shaped our perceptions of sex and power.
Now, from a
distance, we think of Marlene Dietrich hobnobbing with the likes of Ernest
Hemingway and Noel Coward. But, she was not the stuff of high art. I recently
purchased some old cigarette cards with pictures of her on them, and a friend
cautioned me to buy some holders designed for baseball cards. That warning made
quite an impression on me. She was as likely to be Marlene, the subject of the
scandal sheet and the tobacco card, as she was to be the Dietrich of encomiums
by Hemingway and Coward.
According to her
daughter, she created her name Marlene (from Maria Magdalena). According to
Dietrich herself, von Sternberg created her film image. According to generations
of fans, Dietrich herself created something very rare indeed. Even as the unseen
crotchety presence in the documentary Marlene grows ever more
distant in time, we see that she was creating a century that very soon will no
longer be ours.
that Professor Rath has finished his dissertation, hang out at the Seven Sinners
to see and even hear Bijou herself. Here are some sites to get you started, from
to anessay from Stanford
The official, authorized Marlene Dietrich site is not much fun, but it does provide great information. My own favorite Marlene Dietrich site offers unusual images and sound recordings. An hour or two at this site is an hour or two with a witty companion sharing a mutual interest, but a companion who has much to show and to teach us. So, pour yourself a drink and enjoy two fascinating personalities, not only Marlene Dietrich but also her admirer who maintains this site.
There is a great deal of Dietrich material, books, CD’s, and videos, available. The two essential books for me are The Films of Marlene Dietrich by Homer Dickens and the biography (which is available under several titles) by her daughter Maria Riva. I have bought most of my videotapes of Dietrich’s films as well as my copies of her two books (out of print) at eBay, the online auction, which almost always lists about a hundred items related to Dietrich.
A special treasure is Marlene Dietrich: Her Own Song, a 2001 documentary by her grandson, David Riva, featuring some great archival footage, as well as reminiscences by her daughter, Maria Riva, and friends such as Burt Bacharach and Rosemary Clooney. Despite the title, the film places "her own song" in the whole dissonant symphony of the twentieth century. I have let a couple of trusted friends borrow my DVD of it, to explain the fascination and respect I feel for its subject.
Classic Movies is my favorite site for information
about grand old films. So, of
course, he has a celebration of one of the grandest of the film
stars. If, like me, you feel that too much Marlene Dietrich is never
enough, I suggest you set aside a week or two to go through all the pages and
links of his very thorough celebration of
Marlene Dietrich. [2004 updated information.]
find the films of Marlene Dietrich and other greats on television go to TV-Now
Whether you are standing outside the barracks in the pale moonlight or outside the megaplex on a Friday night, keep your feet dry, your heart not only full of noble thoughts but also open to the possibility of falling in love again. And if you've never heard Marlene's legendary voice, here's a chance to fall in love by watching and listening to a clip of her singing "Falling in Love Again" (her theme song, from the film The Blue Angel) in a 1962 concert:
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