Saturday, January 30, 2010

Misogynist! Genius!

The title is a line from Le Tigre's "What's Yr Take on Cassavettes?" but applies equally well to Dario Argento, and all accusations and adorations are true. On a freezing Saturday I start to write but end up reading endless reviews of giallo dvds I'll probably never see, on sweet sites like the Mondo Digital, the Cinebeats, the Final Girl, the Tenebrous Empire, the Bleeding Skull and my long-time favorite, Eccentric Cinema. I love reading about movies from other people's perspectives, and something about giallos seem to bring out the best in people. I think it's the feeling they have to justify their love of the genre in the wake of "feminist accusations of misogyny." That's not a put-down but an observation of myself in particular. Perhaps discussing Argento DVDs is just the codex some of us use to disguise topics too horrifically ambivalent to deal with directly.
I was reading Stuart Willis fine Giallo Collection piece on and its mentioning the misogyny accusations of Argento's Bird With Crystal Plummage:
The razor-slicing of a female character in a lift is justifiably famous for it's shocking impact, and in recent years the reinstated footage of the killer slicing apart a woman's knickers has become a talking point too. Savage, suggestive and yet another piece of ammunition for the insane brigade who think Argento hates women.

Now, I both agree and disagree that Argento hates women. Any artistic complexity--and Argento's is bottomless--naturally results in oppositional interpretations being always valid. The reason law has to be so exact is to prevent this sort of thing, a bar is set in the shifting sands of human emotion/action, and that is all we have to prevent a full reversion to savagery. Art on the other hand must always remind us that this bar is not really set at all, to remind us not to rely on it too heavily but instead find the bar within, before it closes forever and you're left high and dry. 

The problem isn't in discussing misogyny in relation to Argento, but in understanding the way an artist deals with issues of gender--especially in a country like repressively Catholic Italy, where single women are harassed on the street and mothers are sanctified martyrs, their apron strings like tenacious tentacles that can only be removed with violent razor attacks--and the way critics subsequently respond and the way a wide array of interesting viewpoints can lodge in the drying cement around a film's reputation.  Argento both indulges in and criticizes this approach--a metatextual deconstruction that was the style of his time and place during his formative years (Antonioni, Bertolucci, Fellini) and the ascription of pain receiver is feminine as the female body is considered more vulnerable, a more 'open' source of anxiety, more conventionally able to feel agony due to the ravages of menstruation and childbirth. Woman becomes mom/whore/wife/victim chimera on which conflicted viewers work out unresolved issues of castration, post-weaning depression, and the blood of conquerors like the Moors tossing angrily in their glands. Argento is like Hitchcock getting stabbed through the looking glass eye with a sharp PEEPING TOM poker, making us aware that we're all part killer, part bug-eyed victim and it's this continual self-inflicted violence that both defines us and prevents us from effecting real change. We'd be better off blinding ourselves, like Ray Milland in THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES.

What saves us though is that feminist criticism has effectively brought the idea of misogyny and violence against women into the popular critical consciousness. Now a cheeky lad like Stuart Willis can enjoy Argento's films while engaging in a dialogue with a feminist Other who monitors his arousal responses like a disproving clinician, thus allowing him to transfer and exorcise collective guilt. At the same time this Other provides a kind of anima projection superego which prohibits and therefore enhances certain shades of sadistic enjoyment. Internalizing the feminist backlash against the film's violence in this way may add metatextual goodness to one's viewing pleasure.

Criticism perhaps needs to be over-the-top and make grand sweeping pronouncements, resting assured that whatever critics write won't actually start a revolution, but just plant seeds hither and yon. We can be confident that sooner or later something's bound to actually grow to fruition, but that's not our job - we're the sowers. The seed planting then becomes a reward in itself, the Johnny Appleseedian spread-sewing motion like Tai chi. For embracing change is not the same as trying to change the world, but rather to realize it is always changing and it's our own perceptions which are stuck in the illusory field of time, wherein gravity weighs us down with age and boredom.

No great art actually solves problems or answers questions but instead brings confirmation to doubt, a sense the answer to that question you were obsessed with as a child and have perhaps since forgotten and is still out there, waiting for you to pick up its breadcrumb trail. To firmly believe in two simultaneously contradictory opinions is to free to enjoy your own enslavement, which is all true freedom is, or as Bob Dyaln sang "You gotta serve somebody," and the king is dead. Long Live the King... of death and sex cinema, and his unholy feminist backlash queen!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Cinema's Naughtiest Germans, Part Two


The best aspect of this strange tale of German gymnasium girls--torn apart by conflicting development rates-- are the two actresses, one of whom, Karoline Herfurth, looks a bit like Liv Ullman. She plays Steffi, the poutier of the pair, while the radiant and very German looking Anna Maria Muhe plays Kati, her more "normal" friend. Whenever the film is focused on either of their faces, it’s fascinating as they are natural actors who hide as much from the camera as they show, even if they don’t deliver the powerhouse performances of Oscar-minded Americanische jungen.

On one of the girls' nights out they wind up being picked up by two older men and brought over to an "grown ups" lounge. In Germany, kids can enter bars and drink without i.d.s (making this an interesting contrast with the forbidden, glamorized nature of drinking in typical American teen films) this environment is still seen as adulthood ground zero, full of sex, drugs, music and disillusionment. Among the disillusions is Steffi's discovery that her dad is sitting on a nearby couch, making out with a woman not her mom and--even worse--the woman is East German! Steffi and Kati key woman's car, track her down to a shitty East Berlin tenement, and then Steffi proceeds to trick the woman's teenage daughter (Josephine Domes) into auditioning at a modeling agency which specializes in adult videos, under the pretext that it’s a record company (knowing from personal embittered experience the owner is a sex predator). Mein Gott! Are Germans really so vindictive that they would want to send girls they don't even know to their death? Oh wait! Of course they are! Was eine unheimliche frage!

Meanwhile another cute blonde girl has disappeared and the whole city is up in arms. Only Steffi knows the truth, and she's too self-absorbed over her dad’s divorce to consider that the psycho killer who almost raped Kati and the East German could be behind it. It's as if city-wide manhunts ala Fritz Lang's M were something a teenager would barely notice. It really becomes Kati's movie at this point as she must stand up to Steffi, who by this point is snorting coke, sleeping around, and not going to class. Eventually it all boils down to suicide and self-cutting, but along the way there’s lots of music sung in English, and everyone there seems to be bilingual, so it’s heartening to think us Americanische would have no problem going to visit. B


Based on a true story, this is a nice mix of period craftsmanship and forbidden love that makes most Holocaust-ish drama look like the mopey bourgeoisie glad-handing tripe it really is. There's more human warmth and joy in three minutes of screen time with this pair of star-crossed lesbians then in the whole goddamned three hours of THE READER (2008). Why am I even comparing? Perhaps because many are the films that mix Nazi vs. Jew persecution with forbidden love and sumptuous period decor and wartime lighting schemes, but few are the ones any good, and this one is great, and didn't even get consideration for best foreign film in 1999. It did get nominated for a Golden Globe, Oscar's sleeker more artistically comprehensible, less bourgeois cousin.

As Felice the Jewish lesbian "hiding in plain sight" as assistant editor of a Nazi newspaper in 1943, Maria Schrader is an absolute knock-out, a jovial gamin who'd be ideal as a cross-dressing Shakespeare heroine, ala Rosalind in AS YOU LIKE IT. We believe her dangerous good cheer because Schrader plays the role with a fearless recklessness that perfectly captures our hearts and the character... her decision to risk discovery in order to stay with her Aryan hausfrau lover Lilly (Julianne Kohler) is the most beautifully brave and foolish move since Winslet jumped off the lifeboat in TITANIC (1997). The love they have between them is hot enough that you understand why she makes this suicidal gesture. It's beautiful to be that swept away, like THELMA AND JULIET! Even more startling, the film seems true even as it's completely insane, and still covers all its thematic and narrative bases to leave you profoundly moved. Best of all, sullenly self-righteous books-on-tape artist Ralph Fiennes is nowhere to be found. A


An early Lars Von Trier gem, not quite a masterpiece, perhaps due to lack of star wattage, a killer performance from Ernst-Hugo Jaregard aside (Von Trier fans know him best as THE KINGDOM's  Dr. Helmer). Udo Kier is good as an ennui-ridden gay brother of femme fatale love interest Barbara Sukowa (LOLA) but a lot of time is spent watching dumbkopf American expatriate Kessler (Jean Marc-Barr) mess things up for his exasperated sleeper car conducting uncle. If you're a fan of trains you don't have to know why Kessler expressly requests the sleeper car. Damn is it sexy there, a giant box full of dreaming passengers, careening along through the Hamburg night. But Kessler is like that temp you hire only to have to spend so much time correcting his mistakes you may as well do it yourself. No doubt Von Trier wanted it this way. He considered this a masterpiece and gave the Cannes jury the finger when he didn't win the Palme d'Or.

Yeah, Von Trier is Danish, but the film's set in post-war Germany so it still counts! Best of all it's got a German message: if you're not fighting to the death for a cause, no matter how doomed, then you're asleep at the wheel and may as well drown. It starts as good philosophy until someone reminds us it's from Mein Kampf.  And the Germans love trains, punctuality and death in equal measure. Gott in Himmel! B+

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Cinema's Naughtiest Germans!

Oh those Germans. And how well they die... on Netflix! It seems half the films available for instant viewing are for, by, or about that most egomaniacally insane of western nations, Deutschland! For some reason these Teutonic descendants of pillaging marauders and towheaded savages are just meant for the casual distance provided by Netflix streaming. Let's take a look:

1. The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979, dir. Fassbinder)
Failed attempts to get through badly cropped, dubbed VHS bootlegs made me associate Fassbinder with tedium, experimental amateurishness ala Warhol/Morrissey and inevitable peevish headaches, and even the title of this film made me think it was about Eva Braun, mistress of Hitler (below). But now, on streaming Netflix, Fassbinder is ready for rediscovery. BRAUN's got pre-code era frankness and post-war late 1940s Berlin disillusionment, as a combination LAST SEDUCTION meets BABY FACE uberfemme negotiates her way from despair as the impoverished wife of a missing German soldier to mad riches as the mistress of a captain of industry! Brechtian socioeconomic satire merges with Almodovar/Sirk-style operatics like a bayonet through black market butter. Plus, there's lots of good post-war wreckage for our heroine to negotiate her way through (in high heels, naturlich).  A-

2. The Baader-Meinhof Complex(2008, dir. Uli Edel)
Sociopathic German youth never looked better than in late 1960s swinger outfits with machine guns in hand, even if the filmmakers feel the need to use, yet again, Buffalo Springfield singing about how what it is ain't exactly clear / but there's a man with a gun over there, to encapsulate that wild time of the late 1960s (and of course the ubiquitous flaming monk on the eleven-o-clock news). Though occasionally confusing as characters come and go with no ID cards (and all the hot German frauleins change wigs and hairstyles understandably often), it's all boldly ambiguous and rich without being tediously overcrafted. The terrorists aren't painted in any particular brush, letting viewers be attracted to these angry political activists while horrified at the violence of their actions.  The sobering effect is to find your gangster movie fantasia suddenly resembling middle eastern terrorist mentality; you've been tricked into identifying with your own enemy via the mass hypnosis of popular cinema; your own tool of hypnosis used against you, bourgeoisie schweinhund!

Consider the loop of hate that leads from the Nazis back around to the Baader-Meinhof group aka The Red Army Faction: First, the Nazis take their hate out on the Jews; then the toughened surviving Jews split to the Holy Land and take their rage against the Germans out on the Arabs; the children of the former Nazis take the rage of the Arabs out on their parents, for not fighting what they perceive as yet another Hitler in their midst (America). But is it really that these kids don't want to make the same mistake their parents and grandparents did and look the other way as fascism takes over and seals the fate of the free world or is it merely antisemitism reborn in flashier clothes? To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never have so cute... been so violent... for so much media attention. B+

3. The Last Days of World War Two (2005, History Channel)
We all love WW2 because it's the last war wherein we had a clear, unshakably firm purpose as human beings. We needed to band together and work our asses off to defeat Nazism or we'd all be enslaved or killed, so it was more than just a "political policing" action. When Bush calls Iran part of the Axis of Evil he's showing he doesn't know what he's talking about: the real Axis of evil would blow his mind with its horrific yen for wanton destruction. LAST DAYS is flashy, bold and relatively fearless in its constant, excited head counts ("one hundred thousand die on this day, 60 years ago!") And the footage is unsparingly gruesome, sad, sometimes darkly comic... sometimes devastating beyond thought or words. We can never remember this war enough, and thank the stars and General Patton for our continued rulership over the free world! A

Go To Bright Lights After Dark for a semi-sequel to this entry: From Russia With Hell!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Great Dads of the 1970s: Lee Marvin in THE BIG RED ONE (1980)

Sometimes a "period piece" tells more about the period in which it was created than the one it depicts. Fuller's grand war saga THE BIG RED ONE is such a film, with Fuller's unique mix of sentiment and vulgarity being the ideal commentary on the 1970s mindset, at least how I remember it. You could almost say that Fuller's aesthetic came to mesh so perfectly with the 1970s that at the time--and especially edited to nearly half it's intended length--THE BIG RED ONE was almost invisible even in plain sight. For a WW2 movie, it blended so well into 1980 you could barely see it, like camouflaged commandos at the drive-in.

If you're a WW2 fan you know that Fuller's films are all pretty accurate, with scuttlebut about Patton corresponding to the movie PATTON and so on. Why? Because Fuller was there; a lot of the dialogue is no doubt straight from Fuller's sharp journalist memory, with Marvin leading a rifle squad through North Africa, Sicily, Normandy, Belgium and finally Germany. Most of it was filmed in an around the actual locations of the battles, with Fuller's journalist memory no doubt recreating it all better than any squad of Spielberg advisers ever could.

A lot of the onscreen action can get confusing, but then again, war was like that, and you can see where Godard--a true-blu Fuller fan--got ideas for his own narrative-melting 1980s works like CODE NAME: CARMEN from various scenes such as one where Lee Marvin wakes up in a North African hotel-turned hospital that's so full of both Germans and Americans in and out of disguises as they try to figure out which side is in control,  or the squad's sneaky infiltration of a Nazi-held mental asylum with its now cliched moments such as an inmate grabbing a dead German's machine gun and shooting everyone in sight,shouting "Look, I'm sane like you!" Whoa! War is full of paradoxes! You know why this cliche is forgivable? Because Fuller did fight in an asylum and probably saw it actually happen. It feels like  Fuller's been carrying some of these scenes in his head since he was in the war. They have the callow comic book simplicity of youth unfiltered.

But now comes the 1970s aspect - the jetzt-verboten political incorrectness, regarding "whores" and scenes such as one extraordinarily uncomfortable bit in which Marvin's squad delivers a French peasant baby in the moist confines of an abandoned German tank. With the boys all gathered around and holding down and spreading out her legs as she screams in pain, a guy mentioning he's getting horny while using condoms on his fingers as gloves and a cheese cloth as a surgical mask, what's evoked is soldier-on-peasant gang rape, right up to Marvin whispering "puuu-say" into her ear to get her to push the baby out. Later Robert Carradine blows a thousand bucks on a party to get Belgian whores for the night and make them do "whatever weird stuff we always wanted," which includes freaking out a Belgian hotelier with the ridiculous request of a recently dead fellow infantryman, to have a big-assed woman "put 'em on the (freezing) glass."

The thing is, man, being occupied and half-destroyed by bombs and occupation has probably made half the young women in Belgium into prostitutes, just to survive and feed their families, so this broad drunken objectification carries a weird depressing aftertaste, especially if you've seen UGETSU. Then again, is being a prostitute that much more tragic and demeaning than being a soldier? (As Dietrich said in MOROCCO: "There's a foreign legion of women... too...")

I don't mean to knock the film or Fuller with this thing, quite the contrary, to show how no one likely even noticed or thought twice about these possible readings makes the mix of raunch and reproduction all the sweeter (as in old-fashioned sweet, not "vengeance is"). Back then men didn't have to constantly affirm they were NOT rank misogynists. And if a guy got his nuts blown off, we didn't mollycoddle him and race to sew them back on like they do now in movies like TEETH and HARD CANDY; we tossed them to the dogs with a smirk and then forgot about the matter, even if he was our best friend.

Marvin's '70s dad skills include his ability to stand back during downtime and let the boys in his rifle squad do their own bickering, boasting and teasing. He listens, and grins wryly or walks away in feigned disgust, but he rarely interjects or tries to compete. He doesn't need to, and he knows these kids do need to. You almost never see him interrupt or censor a conversation no matter how offensive, but when he calls your number to run up and die trying to bring a Bangalore torpedo across a heavily defended beach, you better move ass or he'll shoot you where you cower. The best you can do is just trust and love Lee Marvin. Do what he tells you and rely on him to not get you shot.

Marvin only smiles in a close-up/medium shot once, when he finally loses it and starts laughing with joy when they successfully deliver that baby. A man who's been doling out death for years suddenly brings in a little life. "We all felt pretty good about it" Carradine notes in the film's voiceover; completely unnecessary, as it's all there in Marvin's hangdog expression as it finally overflow its borders, exploding with a hoarse grinning laugh and a palpable joy as unsentimental in its genuine sentiment as a Hemingway novel, then just as quickly back to business.
According to Gary W. Tooze (DVD Beaver, his excellent screenshots stud this post) "It isn't hard to figure out why Mark Hamill affectionately calls him (Fuller) Yosemite Sam, or why Lee Marvin simply says he's D.W. Griffith." Marvin is dead-on right about that. In the land of no morality and bullets flying overhead, it's a man like Fuller you depend on to deliver the sense of security that a strong, good man is holding the tent up, even if he's just acting to keep the children from crying. No wonder the kids love Marvin and follow him around all throughout RED (and why Fuller was such a popular fellow, becoming lifelong friends with everyone from Godard to General Omar Bradley). In the end, the kids getting blown to bits come and go, but it's Marvin you depend on for direction in the film, it's Marvin you come to love, even as he sends you to your death with a silent pointing gesture.

More from the Great 1970s Dad series (including Walter Matthau, Jack Nicholson, Jon Voight, and Burt Reynolds)

Friday, January 08, 2010

le rayon bleu de Deneuve

Xmas is over and I'm now in the Blu-ray group. It's cool and all but man, all that detail and clarity scares me motionless. Two minutes into it and I'm really missing the blur that used to cover all the tiny beads of sweat under actors' stage makeup. Well luckily there's Criterion, who manage to make blu-ray look just better enough to be worthwhile, but not so sharp as to cut the nose of a snoopy detective, or possible peeping tom. Shall we all not be punished for seeing too much? Well, not all the time, and REPULSION looks heavenlier than ever, not that I've seen it in any form but streaky pan-and-scan VHS hell, my natural habitat... until now.

REPULSION's eerie but glacial frisson makes it actually ideal for being the first film to watch on Blu-ray: we see just enough ugliness outside the flat to make us cling to Deneuve's soothingly blank visage all the more, the "too much detail" problem sidestepped via her stunning countenance. The way Blu-ray sharpens her features into a realm of "too much sight" is usually reserved only for the insane -- the sight of particles and energy actually changing in the face second by second. She oscillates into Cybil Shepherd and Gwyneth Paltrow at times, and it seems sometimes she's trying not to laugh as she walks down the street, hiding how amused she is by Polanski's camera, and we realize that for some of us, beautiful girls in particular, the camera never shuts off. 24/7 they're watched by a million slavering, arrogant males all longing to be toasted in a flaming wicker head... or singed on the edge of a straight razor. As Saul put it in THE OLD DARK HOUSE, "Flames... are really knives... and it's cold, flame is!"

Such madness is, I'm afraid, generally the result of too much clarity rather than too little. As REPULSION's side cast makes clear, the ones who get along in this crazy social order are half-asleep, half-deaf barbarians, the Stanley Kowalskis.  A younger, quieter, more homicidal version of Blanche Dubois, Deneuve's heroine suffers at the hands of her sister's arrogant, cheeky lover, a balding bullethead (you can practically smell his stifling aftershave from down the lift) who can't imagine why sis wouldn't find him adorable and presumes she must be dumb and daft just because she's sensitive, vacant and almost Zen-like in her stillness. She should be in a nunnery, only she'd have to cover up that dynamite hair... and that crime none could abide.

Sometimes I wonder if all this clarity is revealing stuff even Polanski didn't see when picking out shots. He sure doesn't seem to miss much, though, and this is the kind of film that craftsmanship was made for since it's the accumulation of small details -- the gradual shading of light and darkness and the way the world keeps turning outside your door even as you are locked up in your house afraid to go out because of the weird breathing you hear several floors down, coming from your drain -- that makes the film work. If it's too pronounced and over-produced you sense the trickery and think someone's working a gaslight. On the other hand, if it's totally unnoticeable you think maybe they really are out to get her. One tentacle of Polanski's genius is that even when his story decides which is which, he doesn't.

Take it from anyone whose ever been confined to their flat in the middle of a sprawling, car alarm and siren-ridden city while recovering from drug binges or emotional trauma for days on end without human contact, not even daring to move from a sitting or lying position, watching the sun come and go, the hustle and bustle of commuters like a syrup-paced Koyaanisqatsi, the slowly cohering spiderweb in the corner your only friend, every little shadow twisting into a million almost-things. In this, REPULSION is 'true'. Now on Blu it makes sense that Deneuve's so hypnotized by cracks in the film; now we can see deep inside them ourselves... like the barrier between the viewer and the image has been removed, and any minute we might reach in there and pull Deneuve's hair like the arms from the walls, or be pulled in ourselves... no wonder she's so crazy. Just be glad her razor's not in 3-D... not yet.

It's an alarming trend that imagination has grown so undernourished while being paid so much lip service by Hollywood. I'm happy that geeks are gettin' rich and powerful, but every new format and digital breakthrough leads us further from the power of our own personal imaginations to fill in blind spots, to see stuff where nothing actually is. After all, even looking into a campfire and imagining a hook on a car door is a hundred times more intimate and personally relevant (scary) than the inhuman precision of CGI. The more we see, the less scared we are, as Val Lewton well knew. Like so much corporate red tape, digital image "clarity" results less in capturing the transformative beauty and power of our dreams than the reverse, reducing even the wildest alien vistas to ones and zeros, ever-so-slightly pixelated and airless, "more human than human." It'll keep getting worse until one day we'll look in the mirror and have one of those meta-mecha Cyberdine/Rydell Corporation moments and, when that happens, we can only hope Polanski will still be there, slicing our noses and rubbing his lens in our lifeless doll eyes until we're blocked, shocked and pleasantly clockworked, like Deneuve in the arms of her painted-white rapist walls, waiting for the cool of night and the dark into which we can, at last, see everything.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Wicker Lieutenant: Port of Call: Summerisle

I am not embarrassed to say it: Neil LaBute's WICKER MAN (2006)  remake finally moved me, we reach. After four years of starting and stopping all through the early scenes with Cage as an overwrought motorcycle cop retrieving a stuffed animal thrown out a speeding car, after four years of vowing to return one day, finally. Look at me, mom! I'm all right!

So now please don't sacrifice me.

It helped me to have seen ANTICHRIST and BAD LIEUTENANT 2: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS right before watching it this time. I recommend the three as a triple feature to show that if women ever truly shucker free--all the way and completely--from the patriarchy handcuffs, then as Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz once put it: "Say goodbye to your nuts!" And as for Nic Cage, whenever we think our man is totally sucking, it's probably that he's just so far ahead of the curve we can't make out where he's going. Not unlike the character he plays in the BAD, Cage's brave so far beyond reckless that he comes back around to cautious and upwards towards brave again, mach 2.

Perhaps LaBute's remake has acquired such a dismal rep because it was neither a CHILDREN OF THE CORN GONE WILD as its targeted demographic hoped, nor a "noir antihero loses his marbles" art movie, but rather something much more difficult to handle: a damning critique of patriarchy wrapped up in modern sexy teen remake horror trimmings with just enough polish that we believe in its structure as a "Won't somebody please think of the children!" or "Where is my daughter, you animal!" movie, the kind with frantic cop fathers throwing away their rule book and hearing ticking clocks underneath the pulsing synth pads. WICKER even pretends to be such a film until it springs a mighty trap that snaps down tight on the sac of our American values.

Many critics incorrectly label LaBute a misogynist, but his remake of WICKER MAN allows him to depict plenty of very powerful, frightening, intelligent women going up against a coarse, ineffectual male cop, and that's far from a misogynist's idea of a good time. Almost my definition, a truly liberated, sexually aggressive, snarling female is one of the most terrifying creatures on earth to a misogynist. And here one can't even trust in God all of a sudden, because God is suddenly not even a "He" and everything gets dark and scary and one's balls shrink and release hormones of queasy dread that hit us like an extra dose of gravity.

Having finally shrunk my balls enough to reach the end of LaBute's film, I see what a fool I was, and what a genius Nic Cage is to be so terrible. That's the main issue that throws people off this film, I think. We're used to the central figure of manly authority being the 'good guy' - but here he's the villain, and he has to go. And yet his Nic Cage-iness is the exact same as it would be if he was going after the Declaration of Independence.

That is his genius.

Without the people of Summers' Isle kowtowing to his manly whims, Nic Cage's "A Child is Missing, damn you!" righteousness is revealed as the macho bullying it really is and always has been.  Cage here is like the sister's boorish boyfriend in REPULSION or the sleazy neighbor in CARNIVAL OF SOULS, only here he's outnumbered, powerless, and roaring like an old pervert crushed to death under the headlights of a Russ Meyer supervixen.

It's a little like Sam Peckinpah's STRAW DOGS (1974) in that sense, and it offers a similar story arc: Dustin Hoffman in that film is a representative of the "civilized world" entering a strange, cut-off remote society and expecting we the viewers to laugh along with him as he jibes the locals. Critics in general were unkind to the movie, many failing to pick up on the idea that Hoffman's outsider was the real villain and calling the film sexist. You can imagine LaBute feeling the same misunderstood confusion over the criticism of WICKER MAN. In a critique of the patriarchy, one must apparently never be ambiguous or stir up unresolved castration anxiety.

Snip snip!

Well, now that there's BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS and ANTICHRIST to explain matters, and so WICKER MAN makes perfect crazy sense: BAD director Herzog is terrified/ambivalent/enthralled by the forces of nature, forces reflected in BAD's flood-faded colors and Post-Katrina New Orleans water lines; LaBute  is terrified/ambivalent/enthrallment towards women, reflected in the patronizing warmth of Ellen Burstyn or the sudden emotional swings of Lee Sobieski; Von Trier just cuts, literally, figuratively and otherwise, right to the chase, right to the chthonic meat of things, where nature and the feminine entwine into one massive castrating green wooded Medusa. Isn't it sad to realize the patriarchy has to repress and belittle the feminine, for the very simple reason that otherwise women will realize it's much better to kill men off once they've served their reproductive purpose, or send them off to work in the fields as castrated slave labor? Hasn't anyone seen CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON (1953)? What's the matter with you people? You think this is a joke? A child is missing!

The 1973 original was (perhaps) more bearable for American audiences because of the British accents which made the colloquial strangeness even stranger (not close to home enough to stick in the proverbial craw, as LaBute's version does) and it should be noted that the original was similarly box office-stricken in its own home country of Great Britain (due largely to bad marketing and brutal trimming).

In the Americanized rendition, Nic Cage goes deep Yankee tourist: unconscious of the world around him, condescending, arrogant, even boorish, expecting that wherever he goes people will "get" his outmoded hipster posturing and that all women will bow and scrape before him when he flashes his badge and waves his gun around.  When they don't, his only option is a roundhouse kick to Lee Sobieski's heaving bosom. It still doesn't work.

In the original, the idea was that the victim must be a Christian and a virgin, but in LaBute's remake, Christianity has nothing do with it, except as far as it underwrites the barbaric "normalcy" of the rest of America. The victim need only be unconscious, male, and self-righteous. In the end the movie resonates for the same reason it annoys: we hate that which reminds us of our own unconscious Ugly American-in-a-china-shop deformities. In BAD LIEUTENANT, Cage made us feel the chronic pain of his character and revel in chemical relief and the joy of dancing ever at the edge of sanity. In WICKER MAN, it's not his pain that's alleviated, but the pain of any woman who ever endured an unwarranted and inappropriate "pat-down" or otherwise had to suffer the preachy condescension of an arrogant male official. It's always amusing to see these patriarchal bullies squirm when the shoe is on the other foot, until of course we realize that we the audience are the ones squirming... in embarrassment. Ask not for whom the man burns, he burns for bees... until there's no other foot left.

Read also Kim Morgan's"The Bitch is Back" on her Sunset Gun, which originally, back in 07, gave me the courage to keep trying to make it through. And remember, just because you wear a bear suit doesn't mean you can punch out pagan women! You need a pope hat do the that. Or to paraphrase Lauren Bacall: Be careful of those double standards, Steve. You're liable to trip over your cross and break your neck!

Wednesday, January 06, 2010


A lot of shit went down in 1997, the year AUSTIN POWERS came out: loungecore was the big vibe in downtown New York and my loungey clique was so 'hip' we made the cover of the New York Times style section; Faxy Brown was Thursdays, mainly at Lansky's; Weds was lounge night at Windows on the World (top floor of the World Trade Center); Friday was for tourists, man, so we stayed in and did ecstasy and watched Bond; feather boas, Pizzicato 5, cosmopolitans, manhattans, cigarettes, Lansky's, and tuxedo jackets over silk shirts; smoking everywhere but the elevator; Moby and Fancy and Molly who got rich as a dominatrix and moved right up to the big leagues... then... it all... changed. Ecstasy was no longer the drug of choice; cocaine was cheaper suddenly and widely available; swing dancing took over from the usual frug. To swing you needed to know how to dance, so interpretive moderns like me had to sit it out.

I judge, not just because I was too dyslexic to learn swing dancing, but because the scene was never about syncopation or following some actual rhythm, man. It was about lack of principles. The term metrosexual was about to be coined just for us; Sex and the City was still just a column in some magazine; straight men kissed each other hello; everyone's face was stubbly with Party of 5-o-clock shadow. Absolutely Fabulous was our message in a bottle from Swinging London, and then AUSTIN POWERS. Formidable! I had nearly all the music in that film in my DJ kit.

AUSTIN POWERS then, was a cultural zeitgeist/touchstone kind of hit. We felt it was about us. And that's too bad, because all the success went to Mike Myers' head, just as it did Molly's and mine and all the rest who jumped on the cheap-cocaine train that officially kicked loungedelicness to the curb . First, Giuliani banned dancing like he was goddamn John Lithgow in FOOTLOOSE, then 9/11 exploding of Windows on the World and the budding innocent free-spirit attitude we were building; then the first the smoking bans-at workplaces, then in restaurants, then bars, then everywhere. I almost died on a massive ten day bender, watching AUSTIN over and over; where have all the flowers gone? It wasn't about alcoholism, ecstasy, ennui, fabulousness, thrift couture, blase attitude and gallery hopping anymore. It was about whispers between certain people at the Saturday night parties, pooling money, calling someone's pager... in short, we'd become like L.A.

It's a labor of love, is our AUSTIN, innocent of all expectations of the status awaiting it, and Myers is most hilarious when he's operating low and off the cuff with no pressure to measure up to a previous hit (the bombing of I MARRIED AN AXE MURDERER in the wake of WAYNE'S WORLD, for example). Too much fame, pressure and money can do terrible things to one's sense of comic timing; all your friends are suddenly crowded out by sycophantic well-wishers and the elbowing entourages of second string celebrities all out for a bite of your zeitgeist. When it's gone, so are they, and all that's left is the sad jokes involving the accidental consumption of bodily fluids, focusing big budget laser beam attention on the slack-jawed 6-7 year old easy mark in all of us.

The original AUSTIN however was just another SNL comedy from a man who had rocketed to fame on the catch phrase-laden WAYNE'S WORLD and decent Scottish and Japanese fake accents.  WAYNE'S WORLD 2 only made us realize how old and overplayed the "party on, Wayne"-itude had become, so we were doubtful about AUSTIN being as good as it looked in the ads.

But it was.

Mike Myers' instantly legendary character was as anachronistic as Don Quixote and as "enduring" in its age as Cervantes in his; yet Myers' film barely bothered to mine the riches of the conceit, instead dealing with Austin's slow integration into the social order, and ditto Dr. Evil (also Myers), who gets almost as much screen time and has his own problems, like a now-grown-to-surly-adulthood test tube son (Seth Green) and untidy underlings like the tragically named Number 2 (a game Robert Wagner).

As the main bird, super sexy and attractively inhibited, Elizabeth Hurley never wastes a moment to get on Austin's case, just like a typical late 1990s girlfriend weaned on 90210 and CNN. In one tragic scene, Austin has just demolished a whole squad of fembots, using nothing but the power of his shirtless mojo. Hurley (and mind you they've not yet had it off by this point in the film) finds him covered in blonde hair and bikini parts. Instantly, the most important thing for him is that she believes he was being faithful! FAITHFUL!!!! TO WHAT??? If I was the bad guy in THE WARRIORS I'd throw a handful of candy at her. But Austin just squirms in guilt and she smiles the smile of the cat who knows it has its mouse. "I believe you, Austin," she says, never once doubting the rightness of her own moral position as cocktease supremis. She hasn't even slept with him but demands ultimate fidelity. 

It's a neat comment on the "unfun" 90s that Hurley's main job in life seems to be tampering down Austin's bon vivant playahood, raining on his parade, and making him like it by pure virtue of her inescapable hotness. This being the age of AIDS and ADD, it doesn't matter if he's just saved the entire freaking universe and danger is allegedly all around, it's only important that Hurley believes he's not had it off with a robot.  

Bill, your balls are in the mail.

In the interest of science, I've defrosted one of my very first film reviews (from my forcibly discontinued but now reposted 1997 AOL web site, "Dr. Twilite's Neighborhood") to compare and contrast:
Finally, a movie that satirizes our collective nostalgia for the sixties. Mike Myers gets the giddy deliria down pat as Austin Powers, a sly London "mod" photographer/super spy. He also plays the villain, Dr. Evil, a sort of composite of the Ernst Stavros Blofeld and Myer's old SNL guru, Lorne Michaels. After a cataclysmic battle at a London nightclub, Dr. Evil escapes Power's clutches and cybergenetically freezes himself. Austin does the same, and soon they are both thawing out in the chill, no-fun nineties. It's an ingenious premise, and Myers has hung a variety of assorted gags around it, in addition of course, to the now required scatalogical humor.

Therein lies the only major problem with the picture. Compared to the non-stop zing of the NAKED GUN movies, Myer's own WAYNE'S WORLD, or even the real BOND series, AUSTIN sometimes meanders and drags, less a spy movie than a series of related skits ala SNL. But the skits are funny, Myers is always dead-on, and as Powers' "Bond girl", Elizabeth Hurley proves herself to be a very good comedic sport. The film may come off as being a bit stretched out here and there, but you have to admire Mike Myer's off-the wall lunatic originality, as well as his subtle message to all the retro types out there who dress for a time they never knew. As Dr. Evil so succinctly puts it: "There's nothing more pathetic than an aging hipster." (1999) ***
What?? Bitch 1986 when you started dressing like you were from 1967, and then in 1997 you dressed like you were in 20s. Erich of the past, be not smug (PS - I wrote this coda re-editing this post in 2012, so there you go, see you in the frozen HELL of the post-Mayan future!

ADDENDUM 6/14: Just watched it again, man it holds up well. It's been 20 years. So much has changed, yet relationships are stranger than ever. We watched the first CHARLIE'S ANGELS movie after and it has not aged nearly as well, like one long commercial for itself, all slow-mo walks to pop hits, ka-ching right down the the Shake'n'Bake product placement. We've become cynical, I personally have examined all facets of the lifestyle I used to endorse, and they all lead to dead ends. Hurley was right. Humans need conflict and challenges (as Kirk said in "This Side of Paradise" where a space poppy promotes total happiness and surrender and no one wants to go to back to work).