Psychedelic Film Criticism for the Already Deranged

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

South Park Terrorism and the Nicole Kidman Experience

Nicole Kidman, the post-modern Maya princess for the media age, has an amazing track record for playing women full of complex dichotomies that range both inside and outside the mirror of the image: TO DIE FOR (1993), DOGVILLE (2003), BIRTH (2004), and EYES WIDE SHUT (1998) are prime examples, each in its way a self-reflexive meditation on desire vs. the mechanations of reality, of the spiritual's derailment at the hands of sex. She's a hottie, tall and true, and heads above the rest. She lets herself be blankly led through life, snapping awake and lashing out like no one else, seeming to be both the best and worst actress at the same time, fearlessly sexual yet always remote, dissatisfied and in no mood to hide it or even change it. She slithers between moral extremes, from the shy twinkle of silent film virgins like Lillian Gish to the unapologetically homicidal sirens like Fu Fah Lo Suee. For a prime example, please see BIRTH and play close attention to the sex scene early on, and the long take of her face at the concert (above).

Now, hold that thought while we discuss Arab extremists and the "crime" of drawing their prophet, Muhammad. First, SOUTH PARK should be allowed to poke fun at anyone without fear of terrorist attack, but at the same time, we must bear in mind that the Muslim distrust of images has a sound grounding in "reality" - that is to say, they don't want to be hypnotized into a false reality. Consider them the opposite of Kidman's split subject. It's hard for us to imagine it--all media-hypnotized as we are here in the belly of the beast--but pretend you're watching a great movie and you're really into it and suddenly it's your life, there's no more dividing up your energy between fantasy and reality. Where the split world protests their government's atrocities by getting depressed and then getting some catharsis watching stuff blow up in Bruce Willis movies, the extremists are their own Bruce Willises. For them, perhaps, explosives are less dangerous than the seductive allure of the image, of desire-driven commodification aesthetics. Earthly death is nowhere near as terrible (for them) as the soul-eating vortex of the simulacrum. And who's to say they're wrong? Plato wouldn't.

That's where Nicole Kidman and BIRTH and EYES WIDE and of course TO DIE FOR (left) all come rolling in. When the platonists and the extremists threaten to exterminate the image and the alluring veils of desire, capitalism, and commodified aesthetics, Kidman parachutes in like Maya, the Hindu goddess of illusion. Kidman's sexuality is such that operates both within the seductive lure and without. It overflows the boundaries of her films. She's above the fray, but where is there to go other than down?

TO DIE FOR tells the story of a girl who lives and breathes the desire to do the local evening news. She sleeps her way in, blackmails her way up, and murders all the way to the top, seducing poor Joaquin Phoenix into doing her dirty work. In DOGVILLE, we see the college education of the mediated celeb the "slumming" of the elite, seeing how the other half lives and the eventual rejection of the townie mindset, with a bullet. This leads us to BIRTH and EYES WIDE, and the bitchy end-products of the social climbing. In EYES WIDE, for example, Kidman's wealthy uptown girl bristles at the fallow narcissism of her short, wealthy husband (Tom Cruise). He's 100% in the simulacrum and she at least has one foot outside it. All she has to do to set off her man is paint a picture in his mind of her fantasy ravishment at the hands of a lusty sailor and he's off tearing up the town, or rather, sauntering up to it and when it starts to tear back, running away like a little wuss.

Kidman's reality is that she just locked eyes with the sailor 'in real life.' She only imagines having the affair, a fantasy that no real sex with the man you've had a kid with can ever match. She accepts that and can live in both the imaginary and real levels, unlike say, Tom Cruise, who can't quite understand why her fantasy is so vivid in his mind. He ends up going to great lengths renting costumes and taking cabs out to Long Island in the dead of nightto try and reconcile this split so he can escape the mirror, but even then he's too uptight and bound by desire to participate, because to participate would end the fantasy and thrust him into disillusionment and the real, which is actually what he wants but he doesn't quite know it. Sadomasochism and orgies are, in the end, perhaps truly enjoyable only as literature. When you make them real, something goes missing.

I guess it makes me mad because I've done the same thing. But thanks to Lacan and Baudrillard though, it makes some sense now  -- the unconscious goes to great lengths to keep you hungry for succor at all times; Tom and I both made or make the mistake of confusing the real and fantasmatic levels. When our desire suddenly meets us smack in the face, we run away before we know quite what hit us. You may know the feeling: you're single and looking for love and suddenly you lock eyes with a beautiful creature from across the room. They walk over to say hi but before they even open their mouth, you run away, blushing! Why are you such a loser? You berate yourself all night, never perhaps realizing that the berating and longing are, themselves, the whole point. Once desire is quenched it inevitably leaves an empty taste on your soul's evolutionary tongue. Your unconscious knows this, so sabotages your every step.

Observe the photo still from EYES above: Nicole fixes an earring and looks over at Cruise in the mirror as he comes towards her, his eyes flashing himself a come-on like a narcissist in a candy store. Note that we don't see the sexy Cruise persona outside of the mirror-the figure in the far right of the image above seems like someone else, his arm lumpy, his nose big, his mouth slack--it's as if he doesn't even realize there is an outside to the mirror at all and so leaves it blank. Like many actors, he sees himself from afar, the way a video gamer sees his avatar so sudden proximity exposes his Brundlefly-like nature.The veiled contempt with which she observes the scene seems to indicate she understands this split; she's outside and inside the mirror; fully conscious of her unconscious.

Validated by his medical profession, Tom thinks there is only "this" reality, the one where he is rich, good looking and sociable. To even imagine a universe where money and social standing doesn't matter is beyond him, and the film is about him coming to grips with that, trying to crash a party out of his league and otherwise fumbling with the keys to physical gratification. Thus it's with ease that Nicole sends him hurtling through the Manhattan night; all she has to do is suggest the image in the mirror could be read in an entirely different way, as a mask; once outside the costume ball his mask his medical authority, wealth and privilege don't mean shit.

Similarly, masks, doubles, and mirror images are all evil concepts to a fundamentalist religion wherein reuniting splits and bringing everything back to a tangible, universal real is so important, especially since the fantastic imagery being force fed to them is not "theirs" per se, but the American dream machine juggernaut that streamlines all reality into a Wal-Mart /Starbucks strip mall. Thus the threats to the makers of graven images of Muhammad stems from this line-in-the-sand approach. "Make fun of us if you want, just leave this one thing unattacked." But of course we've lost so much in gaining all our cool shit, we can't even begin to understand that kind of deep devotion. We've forgotten we have a mask on and we resent being asked to take it off just as much as the fundamentalists resent us wanting to put one on their prophet.

But again, it can all be solved by looking at Nicole Kidman, that rare creature that seems able to exist in two places at once, the personification of that simulacrum/illusion present in the brief moment between putting the mask on and taking it off. There's not a "censored" black bar in the world that can hide her awesome cinematic body or stop her from arousing men (and women), distracting them from their prayers, and creating earthquakes enough to destroy the world. No amount of explosive or patriarchy can contain her. I love her, because she melts down my I, and all others, until we're just an empty mask drifting feather like to the bottomless floor.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Enhancement of Anguish: Godard's VIVRE SA VIE (1963) on Blu-ray:

The release this week of Godard's 1963 uber-artsy Vivre sa Vie ("My Life to Live!") should mean a lot to fans of French New Wave cinema, even the poseurs like me who just like it because all the women are beautiful and everyone smokes and never show their teeth, for good reason. And of all the beautiful women of the new wave, Anna Karina stands out for her unconscious savvy and button-nose cute meets existentially adrift persona. The hipster intellectual's Bardot, Karina is a mythic archetype for the ages, the poster girl for Godard's most appreciated and legendary output of the early 1960s, including Band of Outsiders, Pierrot Le Fou, Alphaville, A Woman is a Woman, and Made in the USA. She's beautiful in all of them, but only in My Life to Live is she elevated truly to the special realm of sacrificial object--the ultimate screen goddess set upon the altar of, forgive me for using this word, the "gaze."

On the new Blu-ray disc from Criterion, you can notice abundant new and shatteringly depressing things: the dust and emptiness of the run-down pool halls and cafe arcades; the rickety realness of old phone booths, sun-faded scotch tape marks on pinball and cigarette machines, real coffee cups glittering with thumb prints, dirty spirits in the cigarette smoke; the terrible flatness of Parisian life witnessed through cafe windows; the narrow, sloping streets that seem to have no sky over them; provincial and ancient architecture encumbered with urban exhaust fume grime made so Blu-ray clear in Criterion's excellent restoration that you can smell the unregulated car emissions, the inky tang of fresh newspapers, croissants, and coffee; the acrid haze of Gauloises, and most of all, Anna's big round head, shorn of her girly tresses in a smart bob, like a castrated Samsonette, crowding out the space at every turn, as if we can never quite escape the perfect isolation of her cranium.

This is the most literally heady of all Godard's films, cinematographer Raoul Coutard cuts off Karina's chin rather than miss a centimetre off the top, as if she's seeing herself being seen directly from within her shadowed skull, a brain that sees through the thick black bob a mirrored object of the camera's interest, 24/7, always aware of how she might look related to who might be looking. Her black smooth hair fills up the foreground of the screen at least half the running time, flattening out the horizon. I never really noticed this on the crappy Koch Lorber DVD, which I thought way back in the early days, was the bees-knees. Now I wretch when I think I ever found any of it beautiful. Blu-ray makes everything shockingly apparent -- the lunch naked on the fork -- the cold duck whose beauty and ugliness shall never disentangle. 

No matter how many times you've seen a film like this, seeing it anew on Blu-ray is like seeing it for the first time. And this new first time, Vivre sa Vie depressed me like never before. One feels with this flattened image and black hole of a hair-style, trapped. Rarely does Godard show off Karina's figure in any leering sort of way, preferring to focus on her button-nose face, the shockingly tobacco-stained teeth that sometimes appear when she laughs, the way her eyes dilate in and out with a mix of fear, excitement, attraction and queasy dread when she's interviewed by her new pimp.

The issue of prostitution is very hard to deal with in a cinematic frame, especially when the woman being lowered into the seediness of it all is so beautiful and regal. It's easier when she's made up to look like a Aileen Wuornos, as I wrote in 2004 about Monster:

Prostitution is itself "acting," as in to not just engage in sex for money but also (assumedly) to seem to enjoy it. Indeed, a prostitute may actually enjoy herself during the contracted sexual act as long as she pretends she is just a good actress pretending to enjoy herslef. There may be a moment during the paid-for sexual act when the prostitute is completely "herself," which is to say, completely subsumed into her role as a sex worker pretending to enjoy sex. An actor onstage is likewise 100% safely hidden as far as drawing attention to her own enjoyment. She can rest assured that no one on stage is going to break character and remind her she owes them money, or is gaining weight. In the entrapped stage with its dialogue already written she is free to actually become her character, in perfect safety, with no one to know when and if she crosses over into the sublime.

It is ultimately then, the lack of access to a camera that makes the prostitute "worthless" as an actress. For an audience of one there can be no Oscar.

 With an artsy self-reflexive intellectual like Godard, prostitution will naturally function as a metaphor for cinema, everything will, but prostitution is a particularly apt metaphor for the cinema. Coutard's camera leers over Karina's shoulder, sympathizing with her sadness even as it causes it, never sure what's an act and what isn't--is she just drawing us in to ask if she can borrow 2,000 francs? In a meta way, it's even true that her character's dreams of being a film star are realized, right there in the act of being in the movie you are now witnessing, and yet even that is not enough. Godard is forcing us to realize how our own hunger for cinematic beauty is itself responsible for the problems of exploitation and sexual commodification. We destroy the characters we love, our eye is the real monster here. But whereas the similarly distant Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion reacts to the encroachment of our gaze with delusional homicidal madness, Karina's prostitute just watches, almost bemused, as her freedom and life are crushed up in the jaws of the Other's tepid desire.

 It's Godard's most terrifyingly existentialist movie. With Blu-ray you can feel the cold chill of recognition in Karina's tears when she watches La passion de Jeanne D'Arc (1928) with some random date at the cinema. On a blurry VHS in the late 1990s I found the Jeanne D'Arc scene to be "post-modern" but uninvolving; on that Koch Lorber DVD I thought it was just a cliche' - you couldn't even tell she had a date with his arm around her in those two blurry versions. I thought she was alone! On Blu-ray, you can see some sleazy dude has accompanied her, bought her ticket, and put his arm around her. This adds immeasurably to the pain of the scene, the date's expectations for an after-film tryst mirrored in bizarre way the mix of sympathy and voyeuristic expectation in the face of Antonin Artaud onscreen as he hears the verdict Joan is to be burned at the stake. With this new clarity, both the screen within the screen and the terrible empathy and sadness in Karina's face are made terrifyingly immediate. This isn't just some 1928 silent film about an old trial for heresy, it's a staggeringly perfect moment - two brides stripped bare for their bachelor audiences, Karina's eyes mirroring every tear of the actress onscreen, and sensing not some erotic catharsis but the cold, horrific panic one experiences in early middle age as they realize their parents are getting old, their grandparents are all dead, and you are next in line, the pirates of time's inexorable progress making you walk one by one--not neccessarily in geneological order--off the mortal plank.

Like Joan's, Anna's sad lonely fate is all but set in stone, and she seems to realize it both as an actress and a character. She will die or get old and pushed aside for the next generation of doomed pretty Parisian faces--Isaballe Adjani, Isabelle Huppert, for example (both of whom appear while very young in early 1980s Godard films)--but also be enshrined forever in the silver screen pantheon, an altar where her virginal beauty can be sacrificed again and again, in clearer and clearer digital reproductions, long after all of us, too, have stepped off that pirate plank into that swirling sea below.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Dead Jennifers

Sex + death, the two go to bed together like cotton and thread, weaving celluloid flytraps, sticking like glue to our attention span's twitchy antennae. And in horror movies, chicks with curves and fangs, guys with rods and pokers, it all comes together, and the girls are named.... Jennifer? Oh, Jennie!

But dig, why do we need the moralist, the conscience? What's wrong with offing the transgressors if they happen to be misogynist frat boys? Why is it that people who loved Juno hate Jennifer, and I who hated JUNO love Jennifer, oh Jenny! I can tell ya, cauze with Jennifer, Cody shows she can write dialogue without sounding like everything is in quotes.

JENIFER (2007) Directed by Dario Argento
A little hour-long masterpiece by the king of creepiness that comes highly recommended, especially for anyone whose ever been in an unstable relationship with a chick named Jennifer. I don't even want to get into the plot, suffice it to say that it's creepy, gory and explores issues of male sexism, perversion and obsessive lust like none other.

JENNIFER'S BODY (2009) Directed by Karyn Kusami: 
I couldn't even get all the way through JUNO and I love Ellen Page so it figures I'd hate JENNIFER'S BODY. But it's actually not the case. Maybe my expectations were rock bottom low, and I watched it immediately after the far more depressing and vaguely similar DEADGIRL (2008), but I liked JENNIFER'S BODY. Ten minutes into it I was already jumping off the anti-Cody bandwagon.

I still am against JUNO, which to me is the movie version of that new kid in school who looks kind of old, and shows up in your home room with hip clothes six years out of style, and everyone but the teachers instantly peg her for a narc. Much as I love Ellen Page, she can't fool me. JUNO is a freaking narc. But JENNIFER'S BODY goes deep into the crucible of gender/sex-related teen horror and finds the root chords and plucks them like a magic twanger, Froggy. It knowingly nods to other films and drops arcane faux-slang, but since it's not in service of some icky agenda it strengthens its sense of otherworldly metaphor.  JB plays out like a fever dream that more established women directors like Jane Campion and Catherine Breillat sometimes over-shoot  but punchy little Karyn Kusama (below right) nails it and comes up with a perfect popcorn technicolor myth.

Kusama's big breakout film was GIRLFIGHT, which may help explain the ease with which strong women characters come tumbling out of JENNIFER'S BODY: "I have a lot of empathy for those girls who just can’t seem to find a place for their kind of energy, their kind of intensity," she said about GIRLFIGHT and that seems a good explanation for the strong sense of "perfect click" between Cody's award-winning sass and Kusama's colorful comic book moxy. They're not afraid to linger on a long close-up lesbian kiss or a gut-munching, and they can show the heroine dismiss her boyfriend as too weak to help when the girls go off to battle. Kusama's not afraid to go there, to have the hipster boy toy be the one who cries and pines at home while our heroine goes off and rips the joint up.

As for DEADGIRL (2008). That film, oh man. It's well-made, low-key and brave in exploring the ugliness of the high school male sex drive, but so what? I'll just ask another question: if society collapsed and zombies were rampant, what is the first thing you'd want to do? Loot a liquor store? Steal that NM copy of Fantastic Four #1 out of the comic store window? Pack your car with firearms and dogfood and head off into the mountains? If the first thing you imagine yourself doing is chaining yourself up a nice naked zombie sex slave then, God help you, here's DEADGIRL.

I will advise this as alternative: why don't you operate on the realistic level and take home a chick whose not as hot as Megan Fox--not even close--but who's sweet and has a nice personality? Megan Fox is supposed to be very unpleasant to work with, and a less hot chick might be nicer. Anything should be better than a snapping, filth-encrusted living dead woman with jet-black eyes and gnashing teeth to come home to every night. Good lord, it's such a depressing and strained metaphor and meanwhile sex slavery is a horrific reality. When you use ugly brutal reality as a metaphor for teenage hormonal longing, that's moving in the opposite direction of what metaphor is all about!

I appreciate what I think the DEADGIRL people were trying to do. I was dimly aware of some feminist subtext in there somewhere, some critique of male objectification, but in the end it's just a stream of dank basement scenes of dislikable male characters spewing some well-written gutter dialogue. The worst is the brooding nominal hero who spends his days behind library stacks while his lady love does homework with her jock boyfriend. Other outcast horndogs include a sniveling skate rat, and as the gone from geek-to-ghoul local douche-bag--a variation of Arnie in CHRISTINE (1983)--a very cool and interesting actor I've never seen before, Noah Segan. I loved his Mike Nesmith-style southern twang, which interestingly was the same exact twang Alexis Kanner spoke with in GOODBYE GEMINI [1970], which I saw just the night before! Another plus is the poorly rendered but admirably conceived oral castration scene and I'll confess those sort of things always cheer me up when I'm feeling ashamed of my gender and its inherent objectives. Apparently this drubbed up a lot of internet debates, so I'll leave you with a nice quote from Salon's Andres Ohehir:
Try as you may to squeeze "Deadgirl" into some pseudo-feminist frame, it doesn't quite fit. This is a movie about youthful male alienation -- that venerable American-cinema topic -- and its tragicomic consequences.
So in closing, remember when shopping for Jennifers, stick with the brands you know: Argento's version, JENIFER, from the Masters of Horror series, is horrific, brilliant and best of all only one hour long (You can cue past the opening credits featuring two cops gobbling Chinese food on stakeout, kinda gross.) And the sexy, sleek JENNIFER'S BODY has surprising heft thanks to its solid fairy tale-archetypal bones and the one-two punch of Cody's deadpan  dialogue and Kusama's girl-power momentum. Plus, now that I know who Megan Fox is, I'll never forget her. She's pretty cute, and her hair is perfect, Awooo! Lycanthrope a Londres.

Meanwhile, a bespectacled Amanda Seyfried gets stuck with the moral conscience in this one; hers is the tired burden of having to say "Jennifer, you can't just go around killing people all the time!" which, of course, the audience and the film disagrees with. God! I hate that in every movie there's this super drag moral conscience character and we're supposed to feel for them as they sit in class acting all stoic while they carry the burden of being the only one who knows their BFF is a cannibal demon zombie, or sleeping with one, or killing jocks, or obsessed with a Satanic car that kills jocks. Man, but you know whose movies have no such moral center? Dario Argento! JENIFER flows free and easy without any such moral cockblocking. Just gird your loins and get ready to flip your wick back into its waxy nest, never to rise and burn again, for the true Swordman 2 has castrated himself for maximum kung fu power!!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Sorrows of Softcore are the Joys of Art: L'IMPORTANT C'EST D'AMIER (1975, Andrzej ZulawskI)

The French love their neuromantic triangles. What's up with that? Well, I dated a Swiss-French lady and I can tell you; they love what they call a cinq à sept (like Cleo, it means from 5-7): a pre-set tryst with one's lover on the way between work and home for dinner. Participating in this convenient and marvelous alternative to a conventional relationship can ruin you for all other kinds, specifically the "I can't understand why you don't like my friends" American variety. The 5-7 is very, very French and in films we have everything from Jean Renoir's La regle du jeu (1939) to Le Mepris (1968) up through to Last Tango in Paris (1970) for reference. Andrzej Zulawksi's third feature, the 1975 romantic tragedy, L'important c'est d'aimer ("The Important thing is to Love")  carries this torch of Gallic perversity with knowing references to all three of those aforementioned films, right up to having Georges Delerue do a kind of sequel to his unforgettable orchestral Le Mepris score. That's to say nothing of the film's acknowledged intertextuality, i.e. its intertextually ill-fated production of Richard III that centers the action, and off-the-cuff references to Miriam Hopkins (see: 'la reine de Menage a Trois').

In a career-capping self-reflexive performance along the lines of Norma Desmond's in Sunset Boulevard (1950), or Sylvia Miles in Heat (1972), French actress Romy Schneider plays Nadine, a B-list French actress, hanging on by her nails in softcore (?) sex films. She can still look stunning in the right make-up and lighting, but Zulawski keeps her aging face ravaged by strange, pale, orange glows; we can see the lines of anguish in the corners of her eyes, the world-weary drag of gravity and unfeeling exploitation film crews on her cheeks. Nadine's also burdened by the knowledge that she'd still be neck-deep in a world of prostitution and smack if not for the "Zorro-like" rescue of her otherwise ineffectual husband, Jacques, an autograph collecting cinephile played with intentionally irritating impishness-cum-starry-eyed self-loathing by sometimes-chanson singer Jacques Dutronc.

Joe Gillis en verso: Jacque's rescues Nadine from the garage sale of aging female fallen idols, cleans her up, and stores her in amidst all his stacks of LPS, stills, and film books. The walls around this collection, his bright studio apartment are garish with Hollywood movie posters; it's the kind of pad that DVD collectors may recognize as approximate to their own but in Zulawski's vision it carries a stale, empty, even claustrophobic ennui; it's the den of a consumer, not an artist, not a creator. Reflected within the sad disconnect on Schneider's face and her husband's oblivious oppression, the posters become like prison walls.

We see all this through the depth-focused eyes of handsome, ever-so-tortured photographer Servais (Fabio Testi), who falls for Nadine after he sneaks into her Eurosleaze film shoot on his way to shoot gay porn for his deceptively dapper old pornographer uncle, Mazelli (Claude Dauphin).

But Mazelli is the corrupt one, not the noble Servais, who's just paying off dad's gambling debts. Servais and Nadine fall in love when they read the pain and emptiness in each others' eyes, bonded by their moral disgust and sense of self-degradation. They are two prudes in a world of porn, so they spend most of the film circling each other, bound by fidelity to their spouses -- a fidelity that is so un-French it needs special reasons to exist (Servias stole his current wife from another man who's since been drinking himself to death, etc., so maybe Servais has a habit of his own). Meanwhile Delerue throbs on the soundtrack like Contempt's kinkier younger brother, egging them on to the inevitable hook up.

Let us take a moment to remember that Paris (and Rome, as per The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone) has always been more cultured in the ways of non-marital financially-rewarding love than America, and the figure of a houseboy/stud who depends on his looks and weak scruples for drug money needn't carry the same repellent currency it has in the States, where pretty rentboys (unless they're Joe Dellassandro) are expected to suffer more operatically even than Liz Taylor in Butterfield 8. William Holden in Sunset Boulevard, Gene Kelly in An American in Paris, and George Peppard in Breakfast at Tiffany's, to name but three examples, all feel the need to censor their enjoyment of their special situation. They take the cash of their rich sponsors and no doubt provide certain services but the censors don't let us know what those services specifically are, and either way they aren't allowed to enjoy their positions and keep our sympathy. They have to squirm like every dollar hurts their pocket. Mon dieu! Les hypocrites!

Zulawski seems to be sending up this kind of self-loathing and torment with d'amier, albeit in a post-Sirkian way ala Almodovar or Fassbinder. There are also echoes of Midnight Cowboy's Joe Buck in Servais in that both are pretty, relatively unspoiled punks clinging to the delusion that they can call the shots without any cash to back them up. Adrift in a midnight world of sordid desire, in love with the sadness he catches in the newer porn performer's faces, Servais would like to forget that he borrowed big bucks from Mazelli to co-finance a a performance of Richard III just so that Nadine can play Lady Anne. Ever the noble, he insists the producers not let her know he put up the money. Yawn-ement! But luckily for us, that's where Klaus Kinski enters, and cuts through la merde del martyr like a knife through water.

As with the other Zulawski films that have recently appeared in beautiful editions from Mondo Vision, L'important c'est d'aimer's style is form-fitted to the subtexts: voyeurism, cinema, the insanity that true art both requires and instills, and the spiritual purity of over-acting to a surreal degree. The camera moves in an around actors, leering over their shoulders like a pesky reporter. Often, the actors seem to be trying to get away from Zulawski's camera, just to relax. They don't really acknowledge the camera directly, but they feel it watching, like a starlet on set might ignore a leering gaffer taping down the set around her. Who knows if this is what's happening? Is Zulawski deliberately annoying his actors to the point they're always about to storm out of the room? He'd still chase them.

In Zulawski-ville you can have you cake, eat it too, store it in the fridge, throw it away in a fit of pride and self-will, fish it out later and freeze it, all at once, but it's still not going to satisfy your cake craving, to the point of rabid foaming mouth hungry ghost insanity. And that is why for Zulawski the image is always stronger than the reality it services, like neo-realism reversed, and reversed back and forth atop, until it becomes raw blood, guts and modernism. As consumers of the image we're forced to reckon with the inescapable idea that baser arts such as smut make the higher arts possible and even 'high' by definition. Was not even Shakespeare once considered a 'low' art? It's only the dumbing down of already dumbed-down dumbness and the changes in linguistic structure that has made Shakespeare a "higher" art, just as flowers can't blossom without the girtty, ugly, muddy soil and the leering gaffers who tape it down. It is what it is because of what it isn't (the basic tenet of structuralism!) Thus artists are always courting the bourgeoisie for grants in order to make art that criticizes artists for taking grants from the bourgeoisie. No wonder Kinski has to kick so much ass just to get an orgy on for the night!

The importance of Kinski has still yet to be fully gauged, there is yet no meter with which to measure it. So when he hears that the RICHARD III will get the last part of the funding if they cast Nadine as Lady Anne, he suddenly remembers her from her last film, Nymphocula! (a Jess Franco film title if ever there was one!) which he remembers as "the one with two dykes in a castle with a dwarf. "She was fantastic," he cries, "amazing!" Kinski's own appearances in Eurosleaze titles are not only too numerous to measure (he was in Nymphocula too, whether it exists or not) but intrinsic to the genre. He's the crucified, screaming (but angrily not in pain) scarecrow at the crossroads between genius, insanity, art, exploitation, raving anger, and complete detachment. Both creepy and sexy, he's never a full hero or villain: half debonair intellectual aesthete, half wild orangutan, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde swirled together like soft serve. Somehow when he does these low-rent high art 'man on a wire' flicks his insanity keeps him grounded and he emerges unscathed from the carnage.

The sane, however, to judge by Zulawski's moping protagonists at any rate, remain permanently traumatized. They wanted to do Shakespeare and wound up in Eurosleaze; they're despondent about their failure but Kinski knows better: he brings the Shakespeare to the porn and the porn to the Shakespeare.

The key Richard III meta-scene is in act 1, scene 2, wherein Richard woos Lady Anne as she mourns by Edward's coffin. Romy's not putting it over too well, so the director asks her husband Jacuqes to lie in the coffin, hoping Nadine will perhaps get some extra emotional punch for her performance. Tellingly, Jacques comments during the five-minute break: "I thought I did pretty well, no?" And of course, he will do even better--and help Nadine even more--very soon: his cheerful disregard for the druggy emotional nakedness of this kind of theater will signal his own death; he'll make his stage coffin a permanent home. His flippancy here is a punch-in-the-gut reminder to us viewers that we are standing on the sideline, watching other people act or sing and quietly judging them. We like to think we're secret kings who could do this all super well if we bothered to try. We hate to be reminded that we're just watchers in this world, already dead, looking up from our coffins at the faces weeping down on us. Cue Delerue!

It's that sense of sacrifice and death that makes up a woman's picture in the classic pre-code Hollywood version of the term: fantasias of women running up and down the pole of financial success via a series of men they've manipulated and ruined, and all the while maybe only really ever loved truly one... he who was no good and had no money, and then they fall from grace and sleep with everyone in sight, except the man they truly love, he alone must stay a perfect memory, untouched by their corrosive caresses.

Thus, the ideal lover is a dead lover, one whom no amount of licentious rubbing can denature. You can pine for him and think he was "the one" and hopefully, for your sake, he's not going to come back from California in two years with gray hairs and gambling debts, wanting a "mommy" to make it right. And you, feeling you owe him, are going to take him back, dolefully glancing at your one true love in the shadows, adieu mon amor... c'est bon!

Where Zulawski takes a self-reflexive step back from all this is with Jacques' possessive insecurity taking on a horrifically babyish form: he's being forced to admit he never learned to fight back or to "care" enough (about the living -- photos and film memorabilia are a different story). Take it from me, it's very difficult to know what to do, how to be graceful, when one is being cuckolded, or cuckolding, or breaking up a home. I've learned to play all the parts, and that's what Jacques doesn't quite realize --it's an act. Resorting to violence is pointless for any sensible or educated man so all he can do is make snarky comments, bitter veiled threats, and--as I used to do -- spill wine accidentally on the other guy's stupid hippie sandals "accidentally."

Another thing you can do is just dig that it's about post-modern Baudrillard simulacrum deconstruction -- i.e. romance inside a mirror, but that doesn't make it any less painful. In the end, Jacques offers a quietly unflattering portrait of a fan who hides behind images and record albums as if a mother's skirt, afraid to look life in the eye. Servais, on the other hand, is a photographer and Nadine a model; they actually create the images that Jacques worships. They feel validated by the act of leaving their mark for better or worse on eternity, superior to the consumers of the images they make, even if their destiny hangs by such abstract threads as an early morning edition theater review in the local paper. The critics! baisez tous les critiques stupides!

Meta-riches are to be found in this film's DVD packaging, which invites you to luxuriate in fine design and cultivate your inner collecteur as you watch a film that savages the collecteur instinct. Consider the image above, wherein Jacques waxes ecstatic over an old photo of Miriam Hopkins while his movie star wife languishes stoically next to him leaving her left flank exposed to the sympathetic gaze of Servais on the right. Her hair pulled back to resemble Hopkins' in the photo, Nadine is radiating a benevolent calm which Jacques entirely misses, instead talking aloud as if to a rapt audience, announcing of the photo: "This one is going in the safe," indicating his preferred treatment (isolation) for all his pretty prizes. Poor Jacques!

But not poor Erich, I have my memories and a very cool DVD for the top row of my bookshelf--right next to Godard, Antonioni, Bertolucci, Romero, Argento y Fulci? N'cest pas? Do you feel my self-loathing? Ach, wohin ist Klaus Kinski!!! Klaus, kommen Sie hier, bitte! Wir verrotten in der Hölle ohne Ihre Verrücktheit!  

PS. 3/13/16-- Romy's name just turned up in a WWII documentary I was watching--as a kid she played with the high ranking Nazi's children as her mother was a big German star under the Goebbels-managed German cinema! I went back over this to figure out how to slide that bit in like I knew it all the time, but non. It's too perfect as is... though knowing this makes her defeated calm extra resonant 

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The League of Wednesdays: SPIDER BABY (1968)

Having just seen, loved, and written about Girly (1970), I must delve into its American cousin, Jack Hill's de-lovely Spider Baby (1968), for Stacie Ponder's Ye Olde Film Club Day over at the definitive Final Girl. 

And if you needed a reason to love Spider Baby, think of its homicidal purity in contrast with, say, the new Addams Family musical, which I've read disturbing things about via the NY Times' Ben Brantley:
"Gomez (Mr. Lane) and Morticia (Ms. Neuwirth), the heads of the family, discover to their alarm that Wednesday (Krysta Rodriguez, left), their 18-year-old daughter, has fallen in love with Lucas Beineke (Wesley Taylor), a young man from a middle-class all-American home. What’s more, Wednesday has invited Lucas and his parents — Mal (Terrence Mann) and Alice (Carolee Carmello) — for dinner, and insists that the family try to act “normal” for the night."
Wednesday grown up and asking her parents to act "normal'" and not embarrass her in front of her bland boyfriend? Why bother making the play at all? Nothing's worse than when a genuinely macabre family gets watered down and sanitized to appease Times Square tourists. Imagine a Spider Baby remake starring Michael Cera in the same situation as Quin Redecker (above) --tied down and at the mercy of a nubile nymphet with two butcher knives. Cera would squirm and make lame excuses and try to talk his way out of the situation, just like a big...fat... bug... caught in a spider web.  Redecker still squirms, but he's a swell fella, with some real class and a thorough conveyance of adman Bob Dobbesism.

Spider Baby has a come a long way and endured many setbacks en route to its current cult status as the living segue between the original Wolf Man and Grey Gardens (like that film it shows the way the behavior of the rich and the inbred is so similar, and that bourgeois politeness usually conceals great depravity, and it can never be so overly exaggerated (like Tracy and Dinah's 'con' at the beginning of Philadelphia Story) that the average lawyer or reporter would realize they're 'performing' to mask some scheme.

It was barely screened at all when originally released because no one wanted black and white films at the drive-in anymore, all of a sudden. It resurfaced later on blurry video where it became a slow-burn cult favorite but even then it was the kind of film you had to dig for. At least I had to dig in 1990 when I'd watch it every night around three AM, drunk on bourbon and ginger ale - it was on a 6-hour tape I made, betwixt Mesa of Lost Women and Faster Pussycat Kill Kill --all culled from a Seattle cult video and used record store I found when "living" in Seattle. Together the three films on that video formed for me an inner sacred space of the devouring Kali goddess cinematic energy, a womb where death and life were all in the hands of batshit insane dark haired spider ladies and drag racer lesbians, and they set the groundwork for my appreciation of Camille Paglia's 'chthonic' vision when I read her Sexual Personae a few years later. Prurience, punishment and drunken self-loathing all came together for me watching this film, transmuting into to 127 proof gold of the absolving Kali.

No one can climb into the lap of a tied-down uncle (Redecker) or mix girly baby doll sexuality and creepy murderousness like Jill Banner (above). Though Beverly Washburn as her sister Elizabeth has her own great charm, and they have a great rapport, murderous nymphetitude gets no better, not even in Don't Deliver us From Evil or Jean Rollin's vast oeuvre. Cordelia's the one still smart enough to sense the approaching danger, and her 'act' of demure sophistication (her curtseying and socialite hostess bridge club phony grins, while Virignia's thing is the "spider game" and presumably is the titutlar baby; their rival bickering is forgotten when the sanctity of their home is threatened in favor of a well-armed murderous solidarity. As usual with these film dionee, the brother is a wild child simpleton (Sid Haig), the patriarch confined to his bed in his upstairs master bedroom (and long dead, or seemingly so), and Bruno is the best kind of doting dad to step in as guardian, eternally gentle and decent with his homicidal charges.

We all love Chaney's farewell monologue with the children gathered around, as he comes up with the solution to their unwanted house guest problem, a solution which will mean the death of them all-- and a gleam of sadness comes into his eye and how that line "we didn't have all that much time left anyway," seeming to sum up the entirety of his personal career rises and falls and awareness of his own mortality, alcoholism, and bogey man obsolescence, all flashing at once the way it does when one steps into battle, or a suicide spiral; to access that melancholy and ravaged relief takes huge courage, everything in poor Lon's life, from his childhood sleeping in the vaudeville trunk of his thousand-faced dad to his own career-igniting turn as Lenny in Of Mice and Men and later his Universal horror cult status as The Wolfman, all the way down to fucking up his live TV Frankenstein by drunkenly thinking it was just another rehearsal--it all comes pouring out so beautifully, you can't help but well up, especially if you're watching your love life fall apart through a haze of weed and whiskey while the Seattle rain staccatos your flat apartment roof and your soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend dresses to go out to some dumb hippie potlatch you're far too wasted to attend, if you were invited. It's his "Home... I have no home" speech (i.e. what won Martin Landau the Oscar that was really Bela's) and he does it so well he never has to vary from being mellow and glowing, happy that all their woes will soon come to an end, and these cute children will be spared the cannibalistic final act. It's a single scene on a film that's otherwise a macabre horror comedy, yet it fits and elevates the whole thing. It was already a pretty good time, but this monologue transmutes the film into greatness, and Chaney's entire wrecked life into an unqualified triumph.

As with GIRLY, described in my last post, SPIDER BABY seems to merge with my psyche as if it had been made just for me... zeroed in but not in a sort of overkill give the people what they want kind of way but a perfectly-realized, just gory and strange enough but never to the point of post-modern narrative disruption way. It lies on the historical time line between my love for those old Bela Lugosi Monogram and PRC poverty row horrors and the art film Corman-school mix of post-beat wit and Corman trained mastery of on-the-fly shock, schlock, and drive-in pacing. Nowhere are there the tedious elements that usually mar old dark house and murderous family films: no snarky reporters, imbecilic cops, doting old ladies or suspicious tire salesmen and yet there are all sorts of groovy meta links to the gonzo films of the past in the casting: Monogram mainstay Mantan Moreland opens the film as an unlucky telegram Sam; Carol Ohmart, the archetypal broad in Castle's House on Haunted Hill (1957) and Corman's The Creature from the Haunted Sea, is great at making greed and contempt super sexy; Sid Haig, the Jack Hill and later Rob Zombie perennial, brings weird savage naive pathos. Why, the whole thing just stinks with atmosphere! (that's a quote from the sun-dappled but roughly similar and underrated Boogeyman Will Get You (1943).

I can't find my copy of the old version DVD but I ordered the director's cut direct at his Spider Baby Online site. I'm hoping director-writer-producer Jack Hill gets all the profit so he can get rich and make more movies. Stop meditating and start scarifying/exploitating again, Jack! You've got a great eye, ear and wit, so use it, por favor--and Stacie Ponder, you are the Mother Queen of all horror and strange film bloggin's. Yours was the first "blog" I read and related to, years and years ago! You showed monsters, raconteur wit, and perceptive film history-savvy writing could be fused! You fused 'em and Broadway's Addams Family with its tourist-streamlined wanting to be normal Wednesday, you can taste the Spider sting of our ambivalence!

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Head Under Heels: GIRLY (1970)

Much as I love grindhouse cinema, I'll confess some of the themes--the rape-revenge and WIP sub-genres in particular--often leave me feeling soiled and soured on humanity, resentful of my innate chivalry (which I consider an evolutionary trait - we're hardwired to patrol ourselves as men, and beat the shit out of anyone who would take advantage of any woman) being used as a cheap means to fuel vengeance fantasies. Walking the streets adrift like a Tennessee Williams heroine, pining for dead ideals and sensing only brusque, misogynist licentious hostility all around, it takes me weeks to recover. I've been told by many girlfriends that this anti-misogynist rage is not sexy, or asked for. But what am I to do? As an English major at Syracuse during the mid-to-late 1980s, I was caught up in a time of great liberal backlash/sexual hysteria--Satanic panic and the dawn of PC thuggery--wherein sensitive new age guys like me were conditioned to feel guilty for every impure thought and meanwhile our friends in the dorm were being date-raped nonstop by frat boys and too cowed to go the cops. By senior year, there was "take back the night" marches, but by then I didn't go, because the feminist backlash had encompassed even me and my deadpan satire.

That's why, perhaps, I've always long been in love with dangerous women, the type who kick ass, smoke, drink, dose, carry guns, laugh at the cosmic joke and beat a frat boy to death with a champagne bottle all at the same time. Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted is my guru. Yes, I know that's a pretty bad choice for a guru. I go along way for the glint of true madness, especially in a young Lolita's eye. They don't need my help to kill a man. So I feel absolved of a great burden.

And now, I'm right with the times; the poster girl for the era is Sarah Palin, with her tan and form-fitted bright red raincoat and MILF glasses, standing on a podium surrounded by crisp Alaskan snow; her hot breath steaming the microphone, spouting enough fear-inducing fascist rhetoric to make Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate wince. I would never vote for her, but I dig when girls rise up and use their sexual super powers for evil instead of good, and if they can't have their revenge on Seattle like Francis Farmer, let them destroy all the side-burned swingers, angry lawyers, priests, parents, and homeless they can get their claws on! Hence my deep love for: Spider Baby,  Don't Deliver Us From Evil,  Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!, Vampyres, Mesa of Lost Women, Daughter of Darkness, and so on (if you know any others, do let me know).

Thank heaven, then, for little Girly. The film's treacly decor (lots of dolls and paneling) could have been too much to handle but director Freddie Francis does the impossible and makes the whole dreary Brit tackiness thing seem actually cozy in its overgrown gone-to-seed, dead plant and smashed china kinda way. For Girly is the exception, for it is truly mad. It possesses a sense of giddy feral freedom, a constant children's game with macabre undertones, delusional family members fussing over and doting on homicidal sweethearts. So what's not to love, even as the axe comes roaring down? The insanity of the depicted matriarchy resembles Grey Gardens at times, but it comes by it honestly: dolls, pre-empathic (latent) sadism, games like 'grocery store' and 'cowboys and Indians' and an array of children's chants and guessing games in a never-ending whirl of hazily remembered (by me, succinctly and vividly recorded by the play) are all part of a devolution brought on by incest and apparent lax mansion real estate tax, and/or trust funds. They have no father to initiate the children into the social order, so it all comes down to lots of macabre nursery rhymes and chants, strange "rules" of the house, and the way, even here in this macabre paradise, sex destroys everything, but oh! That Girly.

A knock-out of the Sue Lyon in Night of the Iguana /Jill Banner as Virginia (aka Spider Baby) / Carroll Baker as Baby Doll variety, Vanessa Howard captures the spirit of wicked evil as only young pre-empathetic girlies can. Her eyes are alight with unholy mischief, and then -- later -- the guilty pangs of blossoming womanhood--and all the drag that implies. Sexual awakening drives ordinary teenagers insane, prompting a whole slew of irrational behavior; how apropo then that for this insane girl, sexual awakening would mean a kind of awful late-blooming sanity; her rapport with the sad but savvy eyes of "New Friend" causes a rift with the deranged clan, but it's one her craziness fights so she winds up oscillating between compassion and sadism with the same finesse as Jim Siedow in Texas Chainsaw Massacre (with Michael Bryant in the Marilyn Burns position). And she's got lovely legs and her straight blonde hair demarcates a princesses and her simmering red schoolgirl uniform is like a pomegranate-squeezed hallucination against the perennial grey and mud green garden fog of parks and the zoo. She bites into her character with such a cunning glee that you want to lick the juice off her chin, even if means she might turn around bite your tongue off. Of course their mansion is a graveyard of dopes who had just that same screwy courage, that special insanity where dashing one's life on the rocks of desire seems the best possible use for it. All the king's horses and all the kings men can't put your humpty ass together again either way, so piece out!

The rest of the cast as a whole is marvelous, too, full of joyous relish in this macabre set-up. We adore the droll restraint of Ursula Howells as Mumsy (the British title of the film is Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly) and the slow burn of Pat Heywood as the sexually frustrated Nanny, even the interloper who wisely seduces the lot of them, "New Friend" as they call him, is Michael Bryant, who kind of looks like a hungover James Coburn, does a good job in a difficult role (a fusion of aghast and intrigued); Imogen Hassall is his fur and white-dress clad girlfriend, excellent at being bored by the drunken dawn kid games and unaware of immanent danger as they meet and drunkenly cavort at the park playground with Girly and Sonny as the sun comes up. Francis's camerawork is imaginative and rich as always, replete with some good crane shots (he won the Oscars for his cinematography in The Elephant Man and Glory) though some of the interiors seem flatly lit and the palette is very mushy even if there are plenty of dark greens and maroons. Bernard Ebbinghouse's score is a nicely subversive mix of bouncy elevator, pensive classical bits that always seem on the verge of a funeral and add great texture against the nursery school maniacal zest.

Man, this film's got my number. I'm trying to less subjective here but if I love a film I take it very personally. Love kills everything it touches, including objectivity. As Burt Lancaster said in Visconti's The Leopard: "Marriage is six months of fire and forty years of ashes." If you ever were a swinger, you might use that line to justify a lifestyle that includes occasionally waking up from a two-day bender on a stranger's couch, snuggled against a snoring pit bull whom you do not know. To this day, I still don't know what happened that night, or whose couch that was, but I've chosen the swinging path over that of the spouse and ungrey garden and that's my life, and I'll probably do it again. Such is our antihero's lot as the male version of Looking for Mr. Goodbar. He reminds me of me. God forgive us both, and whomever'll have us. We've all let ourselves be led by spirited and charismatic blondes into iron maws such as this. Some of us made it out alive, or in a state that resembles aliveness in at least half the usual shambling ways. What have we learned? How to go along with a deadpan joke and how to play the game and the trick to staying alive is going down early and often.

Man, I'm off topic!  Let me pull in some help from one of 60s-70s-era British cinema's best friends, Cinebeat's amazing Kimberly Lindbergs:
Before Freddie Francis started directing horror films he worked as a cinematographer on celebrated British dramas such as Room at the Top (1959) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). His unique talents helped give birth to the British New Wave and he was partially responsible for ushering in a new era of British cinema. Francis considered Girly to be one of his best films and I think it’s fascinating to view the movie as an extension of his previous work as a cinematographer. In some ways Girly could be seen as a seamless blend of Francis’ early beginnings as a member of the British New Wave combined with his bleak sense of humor and macabre sensibilities.
Speaking of stingers, I dedicate this blog entry to my favorite new show: Investigative Discovery Channel's TV crime doc series, DEADLY WOMEN! And on that note, free Brenda Wiley!

That's her brother!

And strange coincidence, almost all my own films have the same Venus Flytrap / Vagina Dentata theme, particularly QUEEN OF DIC/SKS.

PS - It's filmed entirely on location!