Friday, January 21, 2011

The Perry Mason Time Travel Diaries: Into the Film Noir of Our Lives


My son gave me a full set of Perry Mason episodes -- all nine years -- a year ago for Christmas, and it has brought me untold hours of joy. I love watching them -- I've watched many episodes -- especially the first two seasons -- many times. The later episodes are a little harder to watch; the videos were burned from recorded videos, and they are not in the best condition. They skip, get hung up, and do other annoying things. The shadowy black and white is great, though, and it's amazing how much of the action takes place at the witching hour -- midnight or near it -- and how rainy and dark many of the locations are. I love it. The episodes filmed after 1962 seem a bit heavy on the method acting -- it's as though the cast has gotten too far into A Long Day's Journey Into Night, The Iceman Cometh, and any / all Tennessee Williams plays. The gothic lighting of Elia Kazan (echoes of German expressionism and Fritz Lang) is reinforced by Perry Mason's questionable ethics and his cat-and-mouse maneuverings.

The cat-and-mouse game seems, at first blush, to be with Lt Tragg and DA Hamilton Burger (Los Angeles -- pronounced often with a hard "g") and with law and order, but each episode reveals that the true cat-and-mouse is with Occam's Razor, and the facile assumptions that flow from appearances. If any two-word slogan could epitomize Perry, it would be "appearances deceive."



Over the last year, there have been a few times when, after weeks and weeks of pushing myself to work 18-hour days (okay -- I'm including tennis in that calculation -- take out tennis, and you've got 15 - 16-hour days), I've taken to my warm, comfortable, and rather small upstairs bedroom. With a laptop on my lap, and my portable DVD player at my side, I sit, propped up with pillows and in soft flannel pajamas (and fluffy slippers) -- working on various projects from work, while watching episode after episode of Perry Mason. I love the theme -- the 1965 version of the theme song totally grooves; there is a baritone sax melodic line that is absolutely unforgettable; it gets into your veins, nerves, organs, even -- and you just groove with that dark, smoky, intimate sound until tears come to your eyes.

I'm not sure which episodes I prefer. Most Perry Mason aficionados seem to think that the first and second seasons are the best. I will say that Perry is much more rogue-ish, and some of the lines seem to be double-entendres of the most shameless stripe (in "The Sulky Girl" Perry says he's holding out for a "sulky boy" -- which, if you're a viewer who has not been watching closely and do not realize he's referring to the impending birth of a child of his client, a hard-to-handle "sulky" heiress -- strikes you as amazingly outre.



It's one of those golden closeted moments -- Perry Mason -- represented by Raymond Burr, a gay actor who had invented an entire mythology of heterosexuality, including three wives (who died tragically), a son (who tragically perished from leukemia), a heroic sojourn in the Marines (Iwo Jima?), education at Ivy League schools, and a childhood in China -- when you just can't believe he's outing himself in such a bold way, with no "wink-wink / nod-nod" but a explicit, sexually honest statement about his animating urges...

Well, upon re-watching the episode, the actual context made the line, "I'm holding out for a sulky boy" quite pedestrian, even patriarchal -- the girl heiress had been such a handful, that it was perceived as quite natural to root for the birth of a boy -- not only would he preserve the line, he would also serve as a sane, stabilizing male force.

Lovely ironic double-entendres -- I think they were probably unconscious -- but perhaps not.

In other episodes, Della advocates for the "damsel in distress" potential client by pointing out her physical attributes: "she's quite lovely" etc. Perry always takes the bait, and takes on a client that, presumably, he would have spurned, if she were old, plain, or simply uninteresting.

The frumpy clients always have a certain "je ne sais quoi" quality -- that either makes them pathetic ugly ducklings (where "nature's green is gold") with potential; or aging and/or indigent clients whose personalities serve as foils to Perry & Co. -- showing the dark, noirish, yet noble qualities of Perry, Della Street, and Paul Drake. In one episode, the formula was put on its head via a disconcerting off-the-cuff exchange: Della Street: "Perry, she's quite lovely" to which Perry retorts to ask why she never describes the men --


If you don't know the true sexual orientation of the cast, it's easy to applaud Perry's statement as a proto-feminist freedom-fighting against sexism.

However, if you know the true sexual orientation, the statement is filled with irony, wonder, and a deep, dark acknowledgment of the human condition.

In fact, it's this darkness, this subtle world of the double-entendre that most attracts me to the first two seasons. On the other hand, the later seasons pull me in because of the fundamental darkness of consciousness itself, where Perry Mason distinguishes himself with anti-communist / anti-progressive pontificating, while still plunging into the heart of darkness -- into the worlds inhabited by troubled, conflicted, flawed protagonists who repeatedly self-destruct, self-immolate, and psychologically self-mutilate -- they become reminders of how fragile the human psyche is. In doing so, the later episodes of Perry Mason are amazing tributes to individualism and the notion of deliverance as something radically courageous because it allows the individual to be multi-faceted, complex, and often contradictory; and yet, in the end, a symbol (or entire narrative) of salvation.

So, when I sit in bed, sipping hot coffee laced with gingerbread-flavored coffeemate and sweetened with stevia, stretching out in my flannel and micro-fiber fluffy slippers, I'm drawn to the darkness behind the personae -- after all, aren't we all in the same boat... ? My public persona is very tailored -- I prefer dark jackets, white blouses, narrow skirts (think flight attendant garb); it's a corporate uniform. Yet, I know I have to pay a high price for all those days when I'm "on" and I'm in all-day meetings and am aggressively launching / promoting / facilitating programs and concepts. I'm aware of the darkness within -- in my case, it's all about self-doubt. In the Perry Mason "noir" world, it's all about longing, fear, despair, envy, loss, hunger, and -- above all -- helplessness. There's "Rage Against the Machine" but how about "Rage Against Existential Helplessness"?

Noir is incredibly seductive. The honesty it engenders transcends words. It's freedom through honesty -- existential honesty. It takes a lot of effort to overcome the cognitive dissonance we have to deal with when we muscle our own identities into compliance with what the world seems to be telling us what we should be (I guess you could say that we pay a price as we go into a socialization process)....

Best case - it requires energy to adjust ourselves so we can enter the stream -- reminds me of the way natural gas has to be compressed in order to be able to enter the pipeline, which only takes line pressures that are sufficiently high --

Also well, it takes a lot of effort to beat ourselves into submission.

Film noir openly acknowledges -- even celebrates -- the fears and insecurities that drive people to beat themselves into submission; and, the fears and insecurities that accompany those who tried to beat themselves into submission -- to conform to the status quo -- and who failed...

I'm not sure if I'm making my point, or if I'm expressing myself with sufficient clarity ...

But I want to explore this topic and I welcome your thoughts and responses.

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