The Icon Down the Street

Remembering Louise Brooks, a little too late

The Icon Down the Street

You never forget your first glimpse of Louise Brooks. That glossy, black bob that both reflects the light and absorbs it – like the cinema screen; it's a mirror onto which the audience projects something of itself – and the almond-shaped eyes, rimmed with kohl, wide-set in the perfectly oval face, and framed by the most famous hair in all of silent Hollywood. It means business, that face, simultaneously coquettish and rapacious, starving and insatiable. And smart, whip-smart and wanting to be left alone, long before Garbo. It's that singular, wholly unique visage, eerily captured by cinematographer Günther Krampf in G.W. Pabst's diabolic, Weimar-era dueling morality plays Pandora's Box and Diary of a Lost Girl. (Krampf, famously, also lensed Murnau's Nosferatu; all three films benefit tremendously from his ability to suffuse the funereal with an electric, passionate clutching at life.)

Brooks, no dumb blonde she, allowed herself to be cast out of B.P. Schulberg's Paramount Pictures in 1929 and into Pabst's double bill and, from there, into quick obscurity that ended only in the mid-Fifties when Henri Langlois and his Cinematheque Française held a retrospective of her work, correctly spotting a direct correlation between Brooks' willful disregard of Hollywood politics and the emerging nouvelle vague: the icon reborn through the iconoclasts. "There is no Garbo! There is no Dietrich! There is only Louise Brooks!" Langlois crowed. And after decades of New York City squalor and self-imposed exile, to Rochester, N.Y., and the George Eastman House, courtesy of the Brooks-besotted film preservationist James Card.

I grew up there, a scant few miles from Brooks' final home, without even knowing who she was until after her death, at age 78, in 1985. Although she had worked for everyone from Howard Hawks (A Girl in Every Port, 1928) to William Wellman (Beggars of Life, 1928) before finding herself permanently on the outs and in Berlin, it's the two Pabst films that cemented both her reputation and her pop-culture image. The former Kansan and eventual Denishawn dancer and Ziegfeld Follies girl-cum-intellectual-curiosity who devoured Schopenhauer between setups and enjoyed the screen's first lesbian tryst (with Belgian actress Alice Roberts in Pandora's Box) only found her niche – as a writer, go figure – late in the game.

Asked about her style of acting once, she described it only half-jokingly as "A complete indifference to the camera," but the camera was never anything less than infatuated with Brooks, the movies' proto-anti-heroine, the man-eater who wryly noted that the "tragedy of film history is that it is fabricated, falsified by the very people who make film history," and then went on to conflate her own mythology like nobody's business.

Pandora's Box ends on a fiendish, sorrowful minor note that is nonetheless preceded by a snippet of dialogue that in retrospect resonates with all the bitter irony of blade lodging against breastbone. Epitaph or warning or just some title-writing scenarist's mordant wag? Any way you slice it, "You are under the mistletoe – now you must let yourself be kissed."

Three Women Abroad: Anna May Wong, Josephine Baker, and Louise Brooks

Alamo Drafthouse Downtown

Diary of a Lost Girl

Tuesday, May 9, 7pm

Pandora's Box

May 16, 7pm

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Louise Brooks, Austin Film Society, Three Women Abroad, Pandora's Box, Diary of a Lost Girl

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