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On "Broadway Jungle" (1955)
A film of failure – failure to create, failure to live, failure, even, to die. And for this reason, an important work.
“Art is … [unintelligible]”
–Norman Wright, theatrically drunk
Broadway Jungle (Phil Tucker, 1955) violently decouples and disassembles the systems of meaning upon which the empire of American cinema had been built, in a process whose radical disjuncture is predicated upon its own ineptness – a film intended, it seems, as a dramatic exposé on the sordid back lots of Hollywood, something between Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Fuller’s Underworld U.S.A. (1961), which instead proves to be something far more lugubrious and unstable. It’s no coincidence the film was made at a time when the studio system was already disintegrating – its existence is like a mark of Death, proof that the fate of the being it brands has been sealed. The only easy way to watch the film is via a hazy transfer made for a Something Weird tape, which makes sense as Broadway Jungle is a film of the ruins, a film desolate, derelict, and desecrated.
The film is about a director who is not a director, who cannot make a movie and can only get money from perverted mobsters. Mobsters sit in blank rooms sending mute men to kill and then killing them when they fail. And they always fail. Successful actors and experienced assistant directors want to work for this man, who is broke and says he will not pay them. Mobsters believe he is worth killing. The leading lady in the movie within the movie, them movie which is never made, is also the closest thing the film has to a leading lady. The leading lady’s lines are awkwardly dubbed in almost every scene she appears in, which is ultimately not too many. She has no problem fucking the producer of the movie within the movie, and so a tease scene is dropped into the middle of a sea of non-events. We are reminded sex exists and it shocks us, because we can see this world must be the end of the line. There’s no reproduction here, just an empty pantomime, false pleasure for those soon to be shot. Every plan fails. The whole endeavor comes to nothing.
Failure is the story of Phil Tucker’s career as a director, from the unlovely hills of Robot Monster (1953), to the cheap netherworld of Dance Hall Racket (1953), to the shabby backlots of Broadway Jungle, to, finally, the particleboard laboratory of The Cape Canaveral Monsters (1960), not to mention his striptease films, tissues of flesh and “comedy” so insubstantial as to barely exist at all, the story is one of financial loss and public indifference, his works so minor as to barely merit scorn. For this reason, paradoxically, he is one of the major American directors of the 1950s, his sad clumsiness quite accidentally revealing the bed of shifting sand upon which the Beautiful Machine of Hollywood was built, a more devastating blow than any calculated assault could hope to deal. Although Tucker eventually found his place in this world, and, after all, has left a mark upon it he should be proud of, at the time of Broadway Jungle he was a young failure fresh off a suicide attempt. We are not surprised to learn this, because this is a film only a loser could create, a loser who knows it and does not know what to do about it. It is a film of failure – failure to create, failure to live, failure, even, to die. And so it must be, for only a film such as this, a true failure, a work of ignoble birth and even ruder destiny, admired by few, respected by none, could possess the capabilities to meaningfully oppose the Beautiful Machine. If it were shot with care, if it were edited thoughtfully, if the seams did not show and the edges did not fray and Norman Wright did not become inaudible when leaning away from the boom in one particularly interminable scene, the case would be hopeless. Hollywood would win, as it does in Sunset Boulevard. Only true, vulgar ugliness can establish a dialectic with it, can enact a process of mutual incineration – all that’s left on the screen is ash. When, in its middle portion, the film devolves into little more than long, inert shots of cars and people going up and down LA’s streets set to looping orchestral library music, a worn and tired simulacrum of the “dramatic”, to watch is to do little more or less than bear witness to the bodily destruction of cinema itself, by its own hand, no less, right there on the screen.
A Hollywood film is larger than life; Broadway Jungle is smaller – and so it is its nightmare, its unthinkable, the inbred child whose deformity writes in reverse, across the wreckage of History, the legacy of its father. Everything it hides, it reveals; everything it reveals, it hides. A film that is undeniable because it already denies itself more radically than any other ever could. A film of pointless faces. Béla Balász wept. American Cinema wandering through the last shreds of its dream, which once seemed beautiful and now seems like mere confusion, in the final years before awaking.
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