Saturday, March 31, 2007

In Praise of Carmen Sternwood

I recently re-watched Howard Hawks’ “The Big Sleep” (based on the Raymond Chandler novel of the same name first published in 1939) for about the 53rd time and afterwards I was shook by a vague uneasy empathy I quite suddenly felt, struck by my very fresh sorrow for a lost little girl.

First the quick background for the uninitiated. The labyrinth plot is initially set into motion by a blackmail scam- a sickly, crippled, near-dead, filthy rich but surprisingly human and strangely honorable tycoon hires the detective Philip Marlowe to get to the bottom of the most current threat to his fortune. It appears that he has two young daughters (sibling heiresses both) who Marlowe (and Chandler) sum up well,
“Both pretty and………” pause while Old Man Sternwood replies, “Go on, sir.”
“…both pretty wild.”
As the story unfolds we find that the eldest, Vivian, has a fairly serious gambling habit, likes to drink and has very bad taste in men but this is really nothing when compared to her younger sibling Carmen and her… shall I say……….appetites.

Written by Chandler and performed by the brilliant Martha Vickers, Carmen is a morally bankrupt, moronically juvenile, childishly selfish, dangerously spoiled little rich girl wrapped in a wickedly tasty package- which we instantly learn she invites almost anyone to unwrap- that continuously drips with a “come fuck me ‘cuz I’ll like it” poison. In the short reckless course of her young life she becomes willingly, deliriously involved in serious drugs and illicit pornography and it is the latter that becomes the source for the scam. The not-so-cheap thrill seeker carelessly makes herself eager prey to a sleazy photographer which in turn leads to blackmail and a string of murders –some near senseless, some not so- before the story winds back around to the most senseless killing of all the previous which, in the end, we learn has been the real catalyst for all the blood spilled and lives taken, given and thrown away.

Filled with wise-cracking tough guys, low-life degenerates, stupid thugs, dangerous sociopaths, hot girls on the make, too many guns, callous murder and a simmering sense of true moral corruption just beneath its shiny surface, the movie is well worth anyone’s 114 minutes but that’s not why I’m writing today.
It’s Carmen and, more importantly, the fact that this vapid, adolescent whore- as Marlowe himself might say- “got a raw deal” because, like many of us, I finally realized that my gal Carmen just had the uncommon misfortune to be born in the wrong era. (Spoiler Alert Ahead)

Please understand that sweet little Miss Sternwood has all the cruel animal hunger of a feline in heat mixed with a similar amount of concern for her fellow humans (which is to say precious little unless you’re feeding her or giving her what she needs) coupled with a 5 yr. old brats’ concern for consequences. As she stumbles through her empty headed existence, drug addled, drunk and carelessly reeling from one night to the next Marlowe- and we- eventually and unhappily discover that the ethically challenged heiress is not the foolish dupe, if essentially harmless child that he, at first, assumed she was and nothing more. No.
Carmen bites!
Our wicked little heiress shows her teeth on more than one occasion and in the end Marlowe deduces what her less emotionally and intellectually damaged sister has known all along but been trying desperately to cover up. Carmen not only nonchalantly destroys those around her with her corrosive toxicity, she is also more than capable but less than aware of her own taste for far more direct violence while maintaining her eerily vacant regard for the results of same.
But- call me crazy- If she had only been born now!
Good God it’s like a recipe for celebrity success! It’s damn near a career path. Far from being the family outcast, repulsive personality, social pariah and psychotic murderer of days gone by, Carmen would today be receiving promotional offers and movie scripts, she’d be turning down appearance fees and modeling opportunities almost as quick as they cropped up from under the rocks. Victim of blackmail? Ha! Our sweet little gal would be hiring agents to market her cinema verite effort and lining her pockets with additional millions on the DVD sales alone.
“Carmen loves that Stern Wood!” Won’t Dad be proud!
$19.99 and you too can be all alone with her hotness giving you all she has to give. She’d be imitated, emulated, admired and, dare I say it……embraced with empathy and compassion by the empty hearted masses of our zombie population. I can now picture my Carmen as the tres chic role model for self centered little bitches everywhere and, in addition, as the object of countless masturbatory fantasies for young boys with an internet connection around the globe. Then again………………I don’t know………..I get ahead of myself sometimes.

You see I learn things from watching Marlowe who, admittedly, has some problems of his own. He too likes to drink and smoke a bit too much and, far from being immune from Carmen’s’ puerile charms, in their first meeting surveys Miss Sternwood with little more than open if wary hunger. His subsequent raging hard-on for the much more palatable Vivian conveniently saves him from any inappropriate entanglements so his vision and focus, both professional and sexual, luckily remain clear throughout. But it’s not as easy as all that.
Marlowe is a Pro and a loner, contemptuous of the Law and barely containing his distaste for convention, he lacks both greed and ambition but maintains an iron grip on his humanity and sense of duty. He’s determined to make his end right and- dammit- he’s got a soft spot for the formerly wild Old Man Sternwood to go along with his scent for the saucy, seductive Vivian. Sure he’s swimming in a world of corruption, avarice and anarchy but he seems fit for the exercise and familiar with the waters. I understand him a little.

Then some things happen along the way.
A throwaway nobody who’s made the fatal error of actually caring for Carmen commits the biggest mistake of his worthless career and pays for it with his silly life.
A tough little punk (who indeed tries to put the bite on Marlow for his own dirty money) comes to a mean little end and that doesn’t sit well on the detectives’ moral scale which, unfortunately, seems hardwired to his soul.
Marlowe gets lied to at almost every turn, beat at almost every game and roughed up more than once before he gets angry and starts to think a tiny bit faster than the vicious goons surrounding him in his wealthy, nasty new neighborhood. You may already have guessed that he beats them all in the end and wins the girls heart but to me that’s not what really matters. Marlowe knows who he is and does what he feels needs to be done, the Law, society and everyone be damned.

As for Carmen…………. well…………she escapes the noose and perhaps any real consequences but only because Chandler’s fictional world is a little too much like our real one, a place and time where the rich and privileged can and sometimes do get away with murder, literally. I mourn for Carmen.

My sad, stupid, sexy little girl. All alone in a world where she can get everything she wants and almost nothing that she needs, using those who love her and being used by everyone who doesn’t until she’s out of gas, burning through her whiplash excuse for a life like a first stage rocket whose limited function is only as a simple boost for the big boys before being thrown away so that the real business can continue.
And she takes such a pretty picture too.

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