Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Now bleed for me...

One of my best college friends, John "Fattie"--and his thug brother Chug--went to grade school in Brooklyn with Darren Aronofsky, where according to John, they used to throw his ass a beatin'. Every time I come out of an Aronofsky film I feel like ole Darren's returned the favor, in spades, to all the world. REQUIEM FOR A DREAM was like being raped in the eye and now he pummels us with the wide-eyed stare-down into the dilated pupils of death that is THE WRESTLER, which includes scenes of Mickey Rourke getting punched with a staple gun, slicing his own forehead with a razor, popping steroids; sticking his thumb into a meat slicer; doing pile drivers (in both definitions), and waking up in the beefcake-postered rooms of grotty coke whores. I was so "wounded" by DREAM back in 1998 that I was glad John had beaten up Mr. A, a sort of a priori payback for the beating Mr. A. had just given me, cinematically speaking. But with THE WRESTLER, we can all finally bury our grudges and just enjoy the fight... to the death... for what it is: muscle-headed spectacle in a world of aging meat products with bleached hair. And that's okay. As the Joker and Tyler Durden taught us, a punch in the face can set you free. Forget about Spielberg's meaningless morals of "pursuing your dreams" - punching them is much more cathartic.

Though the fly-on-the-wall grainy video style of the film leaves little room for expressionistic detail in the visuals, Aronofsky more than makes up for that limitation in the sound editing. Noises start so quiet as to be subliminal, growing slowly louder--as in the cheering of fans that blurs imperceptibly with the whoosh of exhaust and backing up of forklifts in the storage areas behind the supermarket where Randy the Ram works by day. But the real gist of it is found in the triumphant spectacle of a man charging into battle and risking death, whether it be in the world of blood and muscle spectacle as in THE WRESTLER, or putting on a show like ALL THAT JAZZ, where death and mortality seem to be happening to you and your protagonist in another dimension as you watch, vaguely aware that while the fight or musical finale is going on down on the ground, up there, somewhere, just out of sight but still audible, doctors and nurses are standing over your lifeless body. It's all in the oceanic surging of blood through ears as captured in the roar of the Aronofsky universe of compromised physicality.

Daved Cronenberg tries for this sort of "body trauma" cinema, but I think, perhaps, Cronenberg didn't get enough beatings by the Lagreco brothers up in Canada. He can't put you in the thick of it, where your heartbeat entrains to the rhythms of the film until you begin to breathe in how the only difference between a theater seat and a hospital bed is illusion of permanence. Aronofsky's pain has transformed cinema, has split the difference between gut-bucket materialist atheism and the sublimely transcendental. You hear it in the subliminal heart monitor "beep beep" that follow Randy the Ram wherever he goes, like a squad of Valkyries all played by Jessica Lange. "Bye Bye Life..." All that's missing is Ben Vereen, in tights!

Before the grunge wave, the 1980s was all about long hair, Billy Squier doing "The Stroke" and Twisted Sister's Slade covers. It was the pride that goeth before the pre-Cobained fall into superficial sighs of irony and couched indifference. Cobain taught us that even raging against the machine we could feel like phonies, but before the dawn of that awareness we hung onto adolescent cheeseball revelry; blazing down to the mall in our mom's ratty red hatchbacks, battery-powered boombox taking up the whole back seat; THE WRESTLER is flash frozen in that world. The Ram still plays his cassette tapes and old 1980s Nintendo wrestling game, still digs the bright-colored spandex and the Guns N Roses (his favorite horror film director is certainly John Carpenter. We can see Randy playing the Rowdy Roddy Piper part in THEY LIVE). Randy's sort of 80's has-been has already been satirized (BALLS OF FURY to name just one) even before this movie came out. That's cool. Randy knows; he just takes it all in stride. Stride could be the name of the band he played in back in '87, if he'd played in a band, instead of just performing.

It all works in favor of Aronofsky's withering vision, and since Rourke's heyday too was the 1980s, wherein he started out too pretty for his own liking, and finished uglied beyond repair. When he says "I hated the 90s" t Marissa Tomei, you can feel their world weary pain both as actors (Tomei was big in the 90's like Rourke was in the 80's) and characters (she plays a stripper getting too old for the pole). In the rest of the world, getting old is a drag but in show business it's worse than death. When Randy gives a big speech about burning the candle at both ends, you know he's not looking for sympathy, he's just letting you know what's at stake. It may be his last speech, so it's important you know he's cool with it. Don't we all do the same thing, latch onto the pop culture trappings of a bygone era as a way to dig our heels in the sand, as mother time drags us home from the beach, always too soon? Just keep facing inland and maybe we wont notice the scythe-swipe tsunami rolling towards us. Aronofsky's cinema is all about turning your head back around, popping your bubblegum, and letting death 'bring it.' We can't avoid aging, or dying, but we can avoid being a wuss about it.

And the big question people have about pro wrestling itself: "How can we care about the big final fight in a game that's fixed?" Well let me tell you, it's easy to keep your blinders on, but take them off and you will come away as I did, feeling like the prearranged "show" fights are where the real action is, not the other way around. Anyone can fight if they're emotionally invested in bashing an enemy's head in, but it takes real transcendental masochism, capital M, to fight someone you're buddies with, to have him inform you he wishes to staple your body with a staple gun and being able to shrug and say, "Bring it, scythe-swipe tsunami!" Whatever lesson in toughness Aronofsky learned being beaten up in school, he has since imparted to the rest of the world. I think here of those lyrics from Jane's Addiction:

"When I was a boy
My big brother held onto my hands
and he made me slap my own face
I looked up to him then and still do --
he was trying to teach me something.

and now I know what it was
And now I know what it is." -- (From "Of Course" Ritual De Habitual)

What was it Perry F. and Aronofsky and Rourke and maybe you have learned? Don't go back to Rockville, or Marisa Tomei and your deli job (his in-store rampage will forever be one of my favorite scenes in movies, and I'm sure every 16 year-old suffering through his first soul-crushing after-school job will feel the same), just say 'bring it' and stand your ground. One of the reasons I love this movie so much is that it rejects the sacramental "family" life that the Spielbergs brainwashed us to revere without question in the 1980's and 1990's. Instead it validates the choices made by Jesus to get up on the cross and moan for the masses even though he could have split before the Romans came, or the fable where the scorpion stings the frog halfway across the river and they both die, because "it's his nature." In THE WRESTLER, it's all about being true to your nature, to make that one good sting, so you don't have to ever crawl again; just go ahead and drown; ride that dead frog to the bottom, breathe in the water and let the mermaids swim to you, with rusted Oscars in their ancient sea-weed hands.

Addendums here

Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Kuersten Family Xmas Cinema Diary 2008

At the Kuersten house over the holidays we had, as usual, just the four of us -- my similarly childless brother (and hulking gun nut) Fred, my Orson Wellsian dad and Hitchcokian ice queen blonde mom. We're always celebrating the lack of rugrats with salty language and there's always lots of movies to keep the focus away from our own shock at how each other is turning out. Our choices are always unusual and worth documenting, especially now that dad has Tivo and is more likely to not subject us to endless rounds of college and NFL football.

AMAZONS (dir. Alejandro Sessa )
Made with the same cast and on the same day as BARBARIAN QUEEN! For Roger Corman! In Argentina! Crappy old horror/sci fi/fantassy movies have been a Kuersten staple since I was a child, and I cut my wit's teeth doing MSTK3-style quip-a-thons with dad over afternoon creature features, as I'm sure did a lot of current horror fans. I was grateful that there were so many hot naked blonde chicks in this movie, because my panic attacks at being stranded in the middle of nowhere, North Carolina, were very bad and cute Nordic blonde chicks in furs really ease the pain. This was the first and last "bad" movie of the entire trip though, as my dad declared a moratorium (AMAZONS was actually my DVD gift to him from the previous Xmas, along with ASTRO-ZOMBIES, as yet unopened). Despite the general air of amateur theater, I dug AMAZONS and tried to convince my family that something this profound needed to be seen twice.

BIGGER THAN LIFE (dir. Nicholas Ray)
When you come from a lineage with Swedish, German and old school Colonial-American genes, you can bet there's going to be streaks of chemical addiction a mile wide and what better family fun film to celebrate the holidays can there be than the realization that there's a lot of violence and megalomania that we missed out on, making us a pretty cool family after all? James Mason is great as the dad who shouldn't, as my dad explained several times during the film, have had to pay for his steroids since he's taking them as part of a clinical trial. Also, he doesn't regulate his own dosage and is soon torturing his family through various self-aggrandizing educational schemes as the drugs catch his ego unawares and launch him into full-blown psychosis, eventually even trying to sacrifice his boy via scissors and a bible. We all loved squirming under the lash of Mason's "too close to home" insanity, but we didn't like squirming over the happy cop-out ending. Angry and disgruntled, we gave it three stars, same as Leonard Maltin, our patron saint.

EL DORADO (dir. Howard Hawks)
Westerns are a big favorite with the family Kuersten, and Howard Hawks always goes down smooth. This one starts out being a rowdy and rousing story of Wayne's hired gun getting caught up in a range war, with Robert Mitchum as his old pal the sheriff and Ed Asner (!) as the bad guy. Somewhere along the line, Hawks turns it into a Rio Bravo remake, but so what? Hawks was always stealing from himself. It's part of his auteur-ness, I don't know why I'm even defending him! There's no need. Plus, our family can certainly relate, with me ten years sober in AA, and my dad and brother already on their third brace of martinis. Mom kept talking over some of the best dialogue, but at least dad was quiet and reverent.

THE MAGIC FLUTE (dir. Ingmar Bergman)
I sprung this on pops as a late night surprise, knowing he'd dig that I dug Mozart, (my ex-Swiss mistress turned me onto this back at an old Film Forum screening). Ulrich Kold (pictured at top) reminds me a lot of my dad too, so I was into it, except my dad fell into his late night "suffused with transcendental love and reverence" phase and you couldn't hear the music since he was so busy waxing rhapsodic over it. Whatever, I love the man, and Ulrich Kold too!

M*A*S*H (dir. Robert Altman)
This was a last minute gift from me to pops, who is a former market research analyst for a reputable pharmaceutical corporation and never lets you forget it! Having only seen this on pan and scan video, usually with drunken townies in the room, I was pleased to find my dad providing me a new angle through which to percieve and enjoy the film, not only as a great example of 1970's sexually liberated earthiness and un-PC good-natured anarchy, but the spiritual overtones that place doctors and nurses as the atheistic equivalent of angels and Christ figures.

OUT OF THE PAST (dir. Jacues Tourneur)
Too much talking to really sink into this one, but we've all seen it before. Being stuck in NC, where the only pretty girl for miles around is my mom, I really fell in love with Rhonda Fleming, as the "good" girl who competes with Jane Greer's puffy-lipped double crosser. She's sooo gorgeous! Why, I wondered, why can't she see that Mitchum is no good for her and she should reach across the sea of time and take my hand? My dad actually started waxing on about the amazing time machine effect of old movies, that these actors are all old or dead yet here they are, younger than we are, and we're aging while they stay young, as if we are their Doiran Gray oil paintings in reverse. I told him, "I've been blogging about that idea for years," but he couldn't hear me, through the veils of time... and highballs.. and all the other tricks by which fathers outpace their sons.

CASINO ROYALE (dir. Martin Campbell )
THis was the third time I'd seen this, and this time I really hated Vesper (Eva Green, pictured below), the British double crosser who won't give Bond the other five million pounds to bet with. What a bitch! What did Bond see in her? My dad blamed her lack of appeal on her lack of cleavage, and it was up to me to labor (in vain) to convince him this was not the case, as evinced in THE DREAMERS. Why were her breasts then not made more prominent in the film? He had me there. At any rate, we all loved Daniel Craig and I made sure to point out to my NRA-card-carrying brother that seeing Craig rise out of the blue waves with his hairless muscly body dripping slow motion drops was a fascinating subtextual gender-reversal mirror to Halle Berry doing the same in the previous Bond film (which in turn mirrored Ursula Andress in DR. NO).

That Vesper, how dare she snow Bond so thoroughly? I can't believe how in love with her I was after seeing ROYALE for the first time. Xmas, for me, is a time to look back on all the relationships I've had over the decades, the girls I brought home for the holidays, and so forth, and to shudder in my alienated lonesome doveliness, knowing the warmth of my family creates a "safe place" for such torturous self-examination and moping to occur. Oh Vesper, all is forgiven! Come on home!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Top 20 Favorite Actresses

I picked my favorite actresses, as in actresses I personally love or fell in love with--at some point--which does not necc. mean they are great actresses - though most are. (I love Liz Taylor and Kate Hepburn, for example, but I'm not "in" love with them like I am with Bibi Andersson or Kate Jackson). Also I've included the top two films I love them for. If they didn't have at least two, they're not in this list (i.e. Linda Fiorentino).

Where applicable I have linked to something I've written about them in the past, or else linked to a recommended writer who may offer more about them than I could -- as when reading about Jane Fonda, one naturally reaches for the work of Kim Morgan, or if thinking Michelle Pfeiffer it's Nathaniel R. When it's Vera Farmiga, I like to think it's all about me... and Vera Farmiga... 4 Eva.



1. MARLENE DIETRICH - Morocco, Shanghai Express


2. Lauren Bacall - The Big Sleep, To Have and Have Not




3. Carole Lombard - Twentieth Century, Nothing Sacred, Supernatural


4. Barabara Stanwyck - Night Nurse, The Lady Eve

5. Jane Fonda - Klute, They Shoot Horses Don't They?


6. Vera Farmiga - Joshua, Down to the Bone


7. Naomi Watts - The Ring, Mulholland Drive


8. Veronica Lake -This Gun for Hire, The Glass Key


9. Asia Argento - New Rose Hotel, Scarlet Diva


10. Natasha Henstridge - Species, Ghosts of Mars


11. Sue Lyon - Lolita, Night of the Iguana


12. Anita Louise - Our Betters, Midsummer Night's Dream


13. Myrna Loy - The Thin Man, Mask of Fu Manchu

14. Kate Winslet - Heavenly Creatures, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind


15. - Ella Raines - Phantom Lady, Hail the Conquering Hero 


16. Beatrice Dalle - Betty Blue, Inside


17. Kim Novak - Bell, Book & Candle, Strangers When We Meet


18. Bibi Andersson - Persona, Passion of Anna


19. Sandahl Bergman - Conan The Barbarian, All that Jazz


20. Isabelle Adjani - Camille Claudel, Possession



Damn, you see a trend emerging here? I'm seeing a trend emerging here.

Runners up would be: Susan Cabot, Lizabeth Scott, Ginger Rogers, Michelle Pfeiffer Cathy O'Donnell, Darryl Hannah, Evan Rachel Wood, Famke Janssen, Linda Fiorentino, Linda Darnell, Martha Vickers, Gail Patrick, Anna Karina, Kay Francis, Mia Farrow and Linda Hamilton

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Plan 9X-Mas

There's something timelessly relevant about Ed Wood's Plan Nine From Outer Space, which makes it perfect holiday viewing for the entire family (once the eggnog has worked its late night magic). I've seen this film all my life in one form or another, my first big memory of it being on UHF TV at around six in the morning when I was probably six years old. You couldn't argue with a movie like Plan Nine if you were that young, and if any film was meant to be tuned on via the weird UHF TV antenna that used to sit on top of the TVs before cable, this was it, wavering in and out of reception, the white noise obscuring the cheapness of the production. It had everything I loved in one film: science fiction mixed with vampires, zombies, Lugosi, Vampira, Tor Johnson, Criswell, all perfectly entwined in a plot so outlandish only a kid in his pajamas, up before his parents on a Sunday morning, could ever possibly hope to truly understand it.

Over the years, Plan Nine has only grown in stature, thanks to the efforts of Tim Burton (Ed Wood), horror magazines, and maverick film critics like Michael Medved and John Stanley (though they both seem to despise Ed Wood for "mocking" Lugosi's legend via the "can" of old posthumous footage). Much has been written about it, much has been celebrated. But we've still got a long way to go before we get it right.

For one thing, there's a great pace and focus on the "good stuff" in Plan Nine. Unlike Wood's other films, there's no long pointless police station scenes and annoying comic relief. Sure, there's Wood mainstay Paul Marco's bumpling Kelton the cop, but even he is relatively under control. And if you are both a fan of movie monsters and a fan of Godard, or Brecht, you can revel in the lovingly mismatched day for night shots, the ridiculously spare sets (the space ship interiors are empty sets with old ham radio junk on top of card tables, like some popular mechanics flea market of the damned) and that just makes you appreciate it all the more. It's like a present that comes to you already opened and played with, one of the arms may even be broken off. But for some reason that doesn't negate its value. Since it's no longer hermetically sealed it's connected to the vast panopoly of other things under the tree. In receiving an opened present you essentially receive all of the world. Is this not the end realization of Brecht's post-modern aesthetic? In accenting rather than concealing the theatricality, the narrative is mysteriously deepened in importance rather than lessened. What better gift for a six year old Prometheus than precious alchemical irony?

You could argue that the hubcap spaceships are cheesy, for example. But why would you do that? They look cheesy in real life, as the recently declassified photos make evident. And the most amazing, topical aspect is still that what you have seen in heard not only has happened, but has yet to happen but will in fact happen in the future. As the Obscurantist rightly notes:

"That Plan 9 uses the most B of movie tropes to convey its message adds a layer of self-performative complexity which puts much high artistic output to shame. Looking back, we realize that the questions posed by the worst movie ever made”have resounded with sinister power across the socio-political landscape of the last half century."
Back in 1959 Ed Wood was the first to declare that the government was suppressing UFO knowledge, and that craft had been shot down by the government in battles over Hollywood and Washington DC. Would this horrifying truth be withstandable in any other format but Wood's midnight claptrap Hollywood spookshow? It would not. I lost this great book I used to have that claimed the government employed Ed Wood to make this film intentionally bad while telling the truth, as part of a campaign of disinformation. It's totally crazy. But I believe it. So should you, and when pressed for the perfect late night drunk on eggnog family film, may I recommend you should reach for Plan Nine from Outer Space? There may be no better way to prepare your family for the coming calamities. As Criswell once said:
"We once laughed at the horseless carriage, the aeroplane, the telephone, the electric light, vitamins, radio, and even television! And now some of us laugh at outer space. God help us… in the future..."
My dad STILL laughs at vitamins, but aside from that, it's all good, all true and yes, Virginia, your heart can stand the horrible truths about... graverobbers from outer space.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Born to be Childless

(Note: Spoiler Alerts)
Oh what a difference sobriety makes. Seeing Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf on the big screen while not drunk has helped me see that beneath the film's bravado is the terror of living life as a childless couple, growing old without children to block the vanishing point on the Grim Reaper's scythe swipe horizon. Taylor and George Segal have the 'animal magnetism' - the drive to claw your way up - while Dennis and Burton are the drunken dreamers. It never occured to me until tonight how much the latter two have in common, right down to her hysterical pregnancy mirroring Burton's invisible son. Taylor is ferocious but Dennis is irrepressible, her innocent, booze-fueld mania the upward flip side of Burton's booze-fueled depression.



I dig that, because I'm childless myself, divorced, better, best and bested, and I know lots of other childless folks and we all struggle with it as we pass "the point of no return" - of course it's different for guys, but still... It's a little more acceptable now, but for the couple of George and Martha, having no doubt married in the conservative 1950s, it has to be a bit of a sore spot, hence the creation of their imaginary child, the little bugger. And yet, just as the bugger is imaginary, so too is the ominous specter of the furred and fanged Woolf (pictured left) who looms over the film like an ominous towering menace.

If this blog entry seems a little whacked, forgive me. It's soggy and warm outside and after a stretch of biting cold, my body is reeling in a cosmic puppy dance of uncertainty and emotional ping-pong. Such spontaneous, seemingly off the cuff ramblings seems only too pertinent when attempting to discuss such a sprawling masterpiece as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, wherein great gobs of brilliant psycho-sexual insight come ripping across the screen in torrents of Taylor and Burton, and let's not forget Sandy Dennis! In the newest DVD transfer, things are so sharp and clear you can see the spittle in her mouth. Wait, did I say that already? Have I been repeating myself again? Hannah? Hannah? Oh yeah, Hannah is in Night of Iguana! (pictured at right). Life's a half-familiar song a drunken fiddler plays / staggering merrily along / crooked alleyways.

I wish there were more films with dialogue by Albee or Williams - these were men who knew how to find the nuggets of truth and wisdom amidst the leavings of their rampaging drunken demons. No matter how much tripe the Taylor-Burton pair bond may have served up in their onscreen time together, they'll always be forgiven; even if Woolf was the only film they ever made together they would deserve to be revered forever. Luckily they made one more film based on a good play together, Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, and some decent camp, like THE SANDPIPER, DR. FAUSTUS and BOOM! That's better than a child, any day. Films are immortal and sometimes anamorphic, kids just get uglier, and then morph blurrily into teenagers. What if you have a son and it grows up... you know, drinking bergen?

Monday, December 08, 2008

Snap, went the dragon! THE SANDPIPER (1965)


I've finished off the last two films in the Taylor Burton set: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which I realized last night that I'd never seen before sober (I've seen it 10-20 times but never knew how it ended) and The Sandpiper - which I'd never seen at all, except in a Mad magazine parody collection, but had prejudged as being exquisitely dull as I couldn't even understand what was going on in the satire. Turns out Mad needn't have bothered, because Sandpiper is pure hilarity all by itself. I can imagine being bored by it on pan and scan TV in faded colors, but the DVD is amazing - full widescreen anamorphic with eye-popping colors and plenty of time to use them. Director Vincente Minnelli makes fine poetic use of the Big Sur locations so, if you love the area as I do, it's worth it just for that alone. But there are many other perks, including the most highbrow camp dialogue I've ever heard. And I've heard the Boom!


Co-scripted by the great Dalton Trumbo, the story finds beatnik painter Taylor squaring off against married reverend Burton for the soul of Taylor's young wild child boy. She wants to keep the lad pure and unsullied by the system, but Burton and the authorities know that at some point every boy needs to get away from his mother and go to school, lest he wind up like Norman Bates in Psycho, or Oscar Madison in The Long Hot Summer. Of course Dick and Liz fall in love, even though his wife Eva Marie Saint, trying here to seem sexless --as if she ever could. Taylor for her part has a lover in the form of sculpted sculptor Charles Bronson (he wears very thin shirts and beach pants, so you can see all the sinews in his amazing body, and god damn! Is Taylor out of her mind to prefer some self-hating cloth man even if Burton's voice is more mellifluous?)

Ah, but back to the colors! There's a huge vase of flowers dead center in Taylor's cliff-side beatnik bungalow overlooking the sea. Minnelli, and DP Milton Krasner, and whomever authored the DVD really make the colors on that bouquet POP out. And if you want an idea of what that sort of giftedness with actors is all about, compare Minnelli's Sandpiper and Mike Nichols' Woolf with their rather tepid, disinterested work in the other films of the set - The VIPs and The Comedians. It's the difference between night and day, or night and later that night. 

Piper doesn't even have to be good when the chemistry between this pair is in full flow the way it wasn't in The VIPs and The Comedians. There's a great scene where the two are gazing into each others' eyes, emoting and talking, and the wounded sandpiper that Liz saved earlier in the film comes flying in for a landing right on Liz's head! She doesn't even flinch! She just keeps staring into Dick's eyes, and for his part, even with that sandpiper there--maybe about to shit on her head, who knows?-- he doesn't freak out, just stays in the scene, fixed on her eyes like a hypnotist. Then after they kiss, she reaches up and cups the bird in her hand without even looking at it, and then lets it loose, saying "fly away, baby." Was this something they shot twenty takes of, just to get that damned bird to land on her head, or was it just a lucky accident that the pro thesps seized on? I spent the whole rest of the film just admiring the perfect nonchalant stillness with which these two lovers acted out their scene with this bird standing in Liz's wild hair. Then, when she chases her old sugar daddy-cum-rapist out of the house with a hatchet, my heart was sealed.

Nonetheless I love what old Walter Chaw at Film Freak Central has to say:
it could've been an early and sharp indictment of the hippie culture instead of this relic of its brief vogue. (It's Myra Breckinridge in every way that matters--and if it's better, that's only because Rex Reed isn't in it.) When Laura goes off on an extended rant about the goodness of "The Natural," you cast a critical eye over her inch of pancake makeup and mascara, her endlessly-teased perm, and her carefully-organized collection of poly-blends, and wonder what anyone could've been thinking. Neutering Burton's force-of-nature virility (see how Burton-as-holy-man/rebel burns in Becket and especially Night of the Iguana) doesn't help the cause of Romanticist physical frankness--they would've done better switching the casting, putting Burton in the wild and Taylor in a straitjacket.
For all that, man, for all that, it's still swingin'. Mr. Chaw, that shit is stone cold hilarious and on point, but please don't dis a lady's lip rouge; chicks can espouse naturalism while smeared in make-up all they want; it's called third wave feminism and it's a stone gas. Of course, I love Myra Breckenridge too. And Reed becomes Raquel fast enough that he's never too much of a dead weight, and it's got Mae West singing "Hard to Handle" in front of greased-down muscle boys. It's so good you're almost tempted to rent Sextette afterwards, but don't. Dear God, please don't.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Case of the Disappearing Accent: THE COMEDIANS (1967)


One thing I love about Elizabeth Taylor is how she can both coast and transcend her craft in a single scene. I've been watching the "other" films that come in the Taylor Burton boxed set and man, what a tepid lot. Liz and Dick seem to saving their sparks for offscreen, if they had any at the time. Sometimes there's still some blazing brilliant flashes of the Liz we all love from Suddenly Last Summer, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Reflections in a Golden Eye. Sometimes she just seems zonked. Either way, there's little life in old man Burton, just fumes.

The main ingredient of this Taylor Burton set is V. Woolf. I've seen that film a zillion times and--along with Taming of the Shrew--have come to see it as the "tru-life" story of Dick and Liz, the dynamic duo of drunken lust and titanic actorly love. The other films in the set are the VH1 versions, the bleary, hung over Dick and Liz of the bloated studio system, a system they helped destroy with their initial collaboration, Cleopatra (1963). For The VIPS (also 1963), aka Grand Hotel at the airport, it seems like the screenwriter has gone off to look for a new job and forgot to tell the actors. Alone or in pairs they wander through expensive London airport sets in search of love, directorial cues, and highballs... what they find is themselves, and obsequious airport receptionists.

A couple as coolly debauched as Dick and Liz could probably not exist in the films today anyway. The power-suit and baseball cap-wearing "industry" people would probably have a hard time getting either actor to agree to product positioning and not smoking. Plus, these days it's tough getting insurance for any film starring notorious drunks, and audiences are far less indulgent, and have quit smoking and drinking and telling lewd stories. Liz and Dick made apparently dozens of Giglis and people dutifully came. The equivalent to the Dick and Liz pair bond today would probably be Courtney Love and Nick Nolte, if they were a couple, and maybe they should be. Can you imagine it? We'd love them, but poor Nick and Courtney wouldn't have a Chinaman's chance finding roles together in today's less enlightened times. Recall that Courtney had to give daily urine tests to play Woody Harrelson's junky wife in  People Vs. Larry Flynt. Here the author sighed heavily, as some PC thug immediately called him to task for saying Chinaman.

But maybe that's for the best. I've only seen two of the films in this set, The VIPS and The Comedians (1967), and already I've grown unfathomably weary. In their romantic scenes together--which apparently are the "meat of things" as far as box office allure - Dick and Liz have all the burning chemistry of two gin-soaked carpets. Burton usually sways or stands still and glowers under baggy Welshman's eyes. Liz angles her good side, emotes, sucks it in, flashes her cleavage and its all very adult, in the way that made adult synonymous with boring. One waits, in vain, for some of the fierce gutsy braying and brawling that makes Woolf so endlessly rewarding. Instead it feels like Dick and Liz are right there with you, too, dreaming of a script with decent writing, their youth, a new liver, a writer of Edward Albee's stature; in that way it's fun for awhile, like meeting new people while you stand in line for a show, but it's not the show itself, and after an hour of waiting and hearing Dick and Liz bicker in front of you, you grow so suffused with world-weary ennui you give up and just go home.

But, what is rare and precious in The Comedians is that Liz is working a German accent! It sounds more French than German, but Liz... with an accent! My ears perked up when I first realized she wasn't just doing a "character doing an accent" like the mannered way Martha might say "What a dump!" in Woolf.  The first scene with Dick, meeting after he gets off the flight to Haiti-- her accent is sensational. Later, it falls off a bit. She forgets she's doing one, then she picks it up where it left off, like a good book. But by then it's long been apparent that whatever fun Dick and Liz are having is off-screen. Did Burton forget he was allowed to smile? He cloaks his hangover in a smoke-yellowed veil of adult gravitas, just like any 60s dad who's given up trying to be a good husband and parent and resigned himself to his easy chair, his Larks, and his highballs, like me dear old dad. 


Ah, the late 1960s, before Easy Rider wiped the frozen martini smirk all the way off Hollywood's stupid face. The last breath out of the pre-Easy star-studio systm wasn't a gasp at all, as it turns out, but a long drunken smoker's wheeze. And for all that, Liz and Dick still got more class than all of New Hollywood put together. Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf? Those industry dorks in their baseball caps and crew jackets, that's who, or they ought to be. If Burton were alive today, there'd be some "Get the Guests" games playing, and no mistake. Alas, he's not, and the best part of the Comedians turns out to be Lililan Gish, who has a few great scenes going ballistic on the sunglassed thugs of Papa Doc. God bless little children. They abide. They are not hung over.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Blocked by the Belle


I've been in a deep post-thanksgiving malaise, unable to write and everytime I turn around I'm remembering this weird scene from Luis Bunuel's BELLE DU JOUR (1967).

In it, our frigid would-be masochistic love slave, Severine (Catherine Deneuve) has been trying to warm up to the clients at the brothel where she's working during the afternoon, but so far no luck. She responds when they get rough, but then they back up and can't figure her out. So she can't quite get past her frigidity until the arrival of a strange, portly Asian man, played by Iska Kahn. This guy first shows her some weird box, that buzzes, and we never see what's in it. Kimberly Lindbergs at Cinebeats has some keen insight about it being a device imagined by the Marquis de Sade... but it's a pretty disturbing concept (Kimberly is more comfortable discussing it probably because she's not a guy).


Then he starts ringing a small bell, extending his arm out far from his ear, but intently listening to the chiming, his ear cocked comically to one side. Is he chasing the evil spirits out of the room? What's that bell about? All we know is, it amuses Severine. We actually see her smile, trying not to laugh, for the first time in the film. She brushes the bell away and puts her arms around this strange Asian man, in a mix of comradeship and affection.

The next time we see her, she's looking quite ravished. the maid comes in and offers her some solace, she sees blood on the sheets.  Severine doesn't want to hear it; she's lolling in debased contentment. "What do you know about it?" she asks.  She's found her delirious "Severine, your servant, comes in bells please don't forsake him" surrender.

Perhaps the bell is part of the De Sade canon of toys as well, hence the aforementioned line from the Velvet Underground's Venus in Furs, my all-time favorite song. Velvet Underground & Nico came out in 1967. Belle du Jour came out in 1967, and I came out in 1967. Together, the three of us were a dark counter-offer to the dawning hippy free love establishment. But even so, why does this scene stick in my mind in particular? The mixture of goofiness and sexuality? There might be some S/M connotation to all the weird boxes and bells, but if so, Severine is not afraid, only amused, her smile as enigmatic as the Mona Lisa's.

It would fit one of my theories about people with sexual hang ups being more "comfortable" with lovers of different races... the same way any repressed national culture is more open to radical ideas if they come from a foreigner (Hendrix in London, Picasso in Paris, Jane Campion in Australia, for example). This is all based on repression and our universal self-hatred, as when a parent is more likely to trust a complete stranger than their own child. Is that it? So is this a sign I should move to Berlin, where I imagine an artist of my unique stature might be respected instead of reviled? Who knows, maybe it's just the ringing of that infernal bell... Belle du jour!