Second Time Around

The Scarlet Empress/A
The Scarlet Empress (1934), the sixth of Josef von Sternberg's seven collaborations with Marlene Dietrich, is to these eyes the most deliriously visual. An early montage of the sadomasochistic terrors of czarist Russia signals that this ostensible biopic of Catherine the Great is no ordinary history — the highlight is a human bell clapper. Sternberg's Russian court is a marvel of bitchy intrigue and Baroque excess — secret passageways, midnight trysts, and scheming functionaries, all in a setting of grotesque statues, doors so huge they can barely be opened, and vast, ornate costumes that almost preclude movement. The characters are equally over-the-top: the present empress (Louise Dresser), a lusty harridan; and Catherine's intended, Peter the Great (Sam Jaffe), a grinning half-wit who plays with toy soldiers. As always, Sternberg uses an arsenal of visual strategies — gauze and netting, luminous lighting — to bring Dietrich to dazzling life as both radiant, tangible woman and seductive, unobtainable Other. Her scenes with sneering stud Count Alexei (John Lodge) are among the director's most sensual.

Also on the bill is another kind of otherworldly gal in Luther Price's A (1990). This Super 8 feature, scored with scratchy lounge music, shows the fantasies of “Edie” (played by the director), a frozen-faced drag queen in a fleabag apartment who spends her time rehearsing dramatic entrances and being “courted” by men who seem to exist in some unrelated space. Price's juxtapositions are often hilarious and inspired — witness sampled footage of Lassie racing to “rescue” poor Edie from somewhere far outside the narrative.

— Gary Morris

The Scarlet Empress and A screen as one program at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, June 8, presented by the S.F. Cinematheque at the S.F. Art Institute, 800 Chestnut (at Jones). Tickets are $7; call 558-8129.

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