Monday, September 6, 2010

Spotlight On: Louise Brooks

As Henri Langlois once said; 'There is no Garbo, there is no Dietrich, there is only Louise Brooks!', and though I absolutely adore both Garbo and Dietrich (especially Dietrich) I have to agree with him. Louise Brooks is the trailblazer for the brazen, sexually confident women that dominated films of the 1930's the roles of which were usually given to the two formerly mentioned as well as Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and others. Brooks was paving the way ten years before any of the ideology of the first wave of feminism was ever being addressed on film. Her decade was that of silent cinema, which brings with it a lot of constraints regarding how sexual a woman can be. Language is a big road block, as there is very little if no room for innuendo or insinuation. Also, without the perfection of lighting, mise-en-scene and focus, one couldn't light a woman's figure to be particularly enticing, like they would for Garbo a decade later. 
Louise was just a small town girl from Kansas with an square body and awkward voice before she became the queen of Weimar Cinema under the Svengali-like direction of G.W. Pabst. With some dark lipstick, and a renegade bob haircut, she would change the face of womanhood in cinema. Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford suddenly started to look more like your grammy next to the avant-garde dark seductive look of Brooks. Though F. Scott Fitzgerald would coin Joan Crawford as the ultimate example of the flapper, Louise Brooks might have been the ultimate liberated woman of the 1920's. 
Though she did have somewhat of a career in Hollywood during this period, we are all thankful that little Lulu felt a bit too confined by American standards and decided to branch out, moving to germany and getting involved in Pabst's "New Objectivity" movement. These films were going to be sinister, satirical, and deviant, with an expressionist undertone. A year before Dietrich would defy censors by wearing a very early version of booty shorts in "Der blaue Engel" (1930), Louise Brooks and Pabst were adressing some very serious issues; murder, rape, alcoholism, prostitution...sounds like the line up for a Saturday night watching the Lifetime Network. But in a way, she was the first to play women who were 'fallen' but were not victims. 
The great irony is that unlike Dietrich or Crawford, Brooks usually played types that were naive, playful, and rather childlike, not realizing the immense power of their sexuality, and their subsequent influence over men. However, paradoxically Brooks look itself is by default seductive. She mixes spritely innocence with sultry body language, solidifying her status as one big animal force. This is something Marilyn Monroe would later perfect almost 40 years later. 
Her most pivotal films are actually very similar and made in the same year, by the same director; 'Diary of a Lost Girl' and 'Pandora's Box' (1929). The character is one that is fundamentally 'perverse' because she engages in deviant behavior and doesn't deem to give a shit. Whether it's having an affair with a married man, or kicking up her skirt a bit too high. Poor thing doesn't seem to realize that The Man is going to come down pretty hard on her flimsy self, and before not too long she would be forced into prostitution, destitution, and misery. Damn the man. And then, of course, she'd have to die, her being so shamesless and everything. I know this is all very Mulveyist, and though it's been a while since reading 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema', I don't remember it ever mentioning darling Lulu. She was a huge oversight. 
I think her greatest gift was being taken under the wing of Pabst, he transformed this rather plain but sweet looking girl into a bonafied seductress. He gave her an identity, that of a sexual being rather than just that friend of the main character whose easily forgettable. She matched his influence with her own awareness of symbolism and femininity that she translated into the roles she played from Thymian to Lulu.
small town girl
during her Weimar years 
I would like to salute Brooks less for her film work (though it's absolutely unforgettable) but for her status as a sexual icon. She always appeared completely confident and ridiculously flawless. She symbolizes womanhood in the 1920's more than someone like Clara Bow I believe. She's like the dark side of Clara Bow. She's completely perverse, deviant, and a total sex pot, and thereby will always have a comfortable niche in the history of women in film. 

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