Thursday, May 27, 2010

For Sizzle: AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE (2010)

 

I considered myself a sleaze merchant know-it-all prior to entering AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE, but still had to see it if only for my idol, Kim Morgan's presence (below) as a talking head. Turns out it's pretty cool and I learned new stuff. In addition to the "sinsational" Ms. Morgan there's: "Czar of Noir" Eddie Muller (good), John Landis (fun), Jack Hill (Zen), and Joe Dante (tres cool), not to mention people I was sure I'd be annoyed by but turned out to love, like Herschell Gordon Lewis (sage-like), of whom Landis says, "I don't particularly like his films, but I love his posters!" Hey, that's a compliment in exploitation land and you can tell Landis means every word of it. Despite the crushing despair I experienced covering the SW double feature of Lewis' JUST FOR THE HELL OF IT/BLAST-OFF GIRLS (for the now defunct DVD Angle), I must admit Lewis seems like a helluva nice, smart, relaxed guy - and even a squeamish feminist like myself has to doff his hat to the man who made 2,000 MANIACS - in the words of Michael Weldon: "YEE-HAW!".



Producer/director/editor Elijah Drenner keeps it all humming along at a nice clip through the decades, starting around the dawn of cinema and ending with recent tributes like Tarantino and Rodriguez's GRINDHOUSE. There's elements I would have put in (the rise of the VCR and Disneyfication of Times Square) and others I may have left out (THE TWO-HEADED TRANSPLANT) but you'll never squeeze the whole history into a single film, and Drenner keeps it all from being too flashy or too slow, too normal or too head-spinningly weird --and does not spare the adult content: bare breasts, sexual assault and horrific gore are all here, with many of the most disturbing clips from the most disturbing films: ILSA: SHE-WOLF OF THE SS and the works of HG Lewis (pictured below), such as BLOOD FEAST, for example. And the clips all look really, really good. It's very strange that this stuff was once so shocking you could only see it as a legal adult in a sleazy theater at the stroke of midnight, and now it's nostalgia and much less traumatic, and yet - the times are if anything more conservative and morally regressive than ever.

HGL and some of his 2,000 Maniacs
The best praise I could give for something like this is that it reminded me of when I was a kid in the 70s and actually scared of the TV commercials and newspaper ads for a lot of these movies. I could also see a portion of a drive-in screen, far in the distance, from my bedroom window, if I used my kid telescope - I watched THE MANITOU that way! I still haven't seen LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (from fear of post-rape viewing trauma more than anything else) but if I could be assured the actual DVD transfers of these films looked as good as they cleaned-up clips here, I'd be all over it. Plus, Drenner leavens any unease about the film by showing lots of outtakes: LAST HOUSE seems less foreboding now that I've seen David Hess shooting the breeze with his onscreen victims between shots.

It must have been a difficult choice to leave out the European imports that had a huge effect on grindhouse distribution patterns (I asked Drenner about that: "We had to make a clear line down the middle and decide what to cover and what to leave out.") On the other hand, who needs a complete picture? That's what Michael Weldon's Psychotronic Cinema Guide The Psychotronic Video Guide To Film is for! What we have here in AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE is a nice little summary of 100% American film output, a carny's insider view of Yankee hooplah and pitchman ballyhoo, with art and culture pushed way to the side until it's off the table -- and lands with a lowbrow splat.

There's stuff here I didn't know about, which shocked me. I had no idea the film THE CORPSE GRINDERS was a huge hit for Ted V. Mikels. The grinding of corpses carries no appeal for me, personally, but I always kind of subconsciously associated it with the term grindhouse (or the shredding of old film in a cheap projector, grinding the sprockets). When I learned the name's taken from "Bump and grind" as a mark of when the country's once plentiful burlesque houses were turned into theaters to show films of girls stripping (cheaper that way), you coulda knocked me over with a feather from a rhinestone pastie. Imagine if it was called 'bumphouse' instead? Why just grind, man? 

The whole stripper genre was a bit of a blind spot in my sleaze-education prior to this film but apparently there were an awful (in both senses) lot of them. Ed Wood fans still recovering from trying to stay awake through ORGY OF THE DEAD might be glad to know it's not anyone's fault that they failed. LSD fans who tried and failed to watch more than ten minutes of MANTIS IN LACE can also relax for the same reason. Apparently there was a time when looooong dull stationary camera striptease scenes (as with burlesque queen, Blaze Starr, atop with drum) were considered the height of decadence. Fascinating, yet tame and tedious in our age of readily ubiquitous nudity and XXX-rated websites.
 
I've got minor quibbles with AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE as a whole, of course: we'd be so much better off with more of the witty Kim Morgan, though when she's put on the spot for saying women like to see other women naked ("They do!" she exclaims in reaction to Drenner's apparent offscreen incredulity) it seems a bit of a weird inclusion; if you're going to leave it in the film, don't doubt the woman! She's trying to help Travis Bickle get Cybil Shepherd to go with him to see SOMETIMES SWEET SUSAN (see way below).  I always thought Travis was being rather passive aggressive, the pressure to be charming and get Cybil into bed leading him to this massive act of self-sabotage. But Kim says different. I believe her.

On that note, no review of a movie on a topic like this would be complete without the word misogyny, so there it is. Surprisingly, the most feminist-friendly guy on the show seems to be HG Lewis! There's ample time devoted to his feminist-fave, SHE-DEVILS ON WHEELS, but where's Russ Meyer's FASTER PUSSYCAT, Abel Ferrara's MS. 45, that Hemingway sister joint, LIPSTICK, and the whole rape-revenge cycle? For that matter, where's the Satanic possession and the EXORCIST / ROSEMARY'S BABY knockoffs? Where's TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE? ERASERHEAD? Bette Davis' BABY JANE microgenre, and 70s telekinesis? BLACULA? And ballyhoo meister David Friedman's classic quote about how his movies were "all sizzle and no steak," and pornography gave people the steak, so the sizzle was out, and that's how grindhouse essentially died and became pornography?


Not to kvetch of course, just to flaunt my own expansive knowledge and hide my terror. Because not only am I afraid to see LAST HOUSE, I'm afraid to see PASSION OF THE CHRIST (above), which Landis astutely points out is "the last real grindhouse film!"

Speaking of passion, I've got a soft spot for New York accents, so I got a real kick out of sleaze director Don Edmonds alternately justifying, apologizing for, and boasting of, the excesses of his ILSA: SHE-WOLF OF THE SS, a film I rented back in 1990 in Seattle (from Scarecrow Video!) and which made me see red, literally, when I closed my eyes during sex for the next three years!  But one must admire the relative care that went into ILSA, vs., say, most other Nazisploitation (called "Nazi Exploitation" here, for some reason) with their use of Lewis' patented nail-the-camera-to-the floor, yell-action-and-sneak-off-for-a-nap style framing. But what about the other period sleaze auteurs that aren't mentioned (unless they were mentioned whilst I was in the bathroom, or mixing drinks, or smoking crack, or rolling johns in the men's room), shouldn't there be a sequel? Eurosleazeonomicon, or something cool like that?



AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE never reaches much of a conclusion beyond confirming that Americans will always make films with both eyes on the ticket window and just a toe brushing up against the edge of art, and thus our baser instincts will always be catered to. It's a comforting but disturbing thought about the value of prurience and the way always getting exactly what you want to see can make you a perverse mess just like the anti-porn crusaders have always harangued it would. But at a brisk under-90 minute running time (it would be a perfect part of any exploitation double feature), AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE moves fast enough there's nary a dull moment. For casual fans you can really get an idea of what avenues you may want to explore. Just be prepared to be shocked, amazed, and... most of all, flabbergasted! Grind yourself deep into your seat as you enjoy a splice-ridden slice of film history, one bedecked with sound, fury, and sizzle. In the words of Pam Grier in COFFY (below) when her cop boyfriend tells her she can't just go around just killing everyone: "Why not?"

Monday, May 24, 2010

My Night of the Iguana


There's movies about drunks made by sober folks for sober folks (i.e. Days of Wine and Roses) and then there's movies about drunks made by drunks for drunks, such as NIGHT OF THE IGUANA. It's directed by John "drunk in Mexico" Huston, written by Tennessee "alcoholic beachboy junky" Williams, and stars Richard "King Drunkus" Burton. Whether snoring through high-steppin' crap like EXORCIST 2: THE HERETIC or THE MEDUSA TOUCH, chewing the scenery to pulp in stuff like DR. FAUSTUS and BOOM! or--in very rare in between moments of clarity--acting, Burton was always one drink ahead of his slur; a surfer sliding and laughing down the tube as lightweights collapsed in his wake.



I don't like to regale you with too many personal anecdotes, but when dealing with my all-time favorite films I find it helps show you where I'm coming from; the impossibility of being objective, etc., so let me tell you a story that mirrors Rev. Shannon's own, a story that takes me back twenty years:

I'd graduated college in Syracuse, NY where I'd been in a popular rock band, moved to Seattle with my hot girlfriend; wound up in a Hendrix cover band until the Hendrix got arrested and I wouldn't co-sign his bond and put up my car as collateral; became a hopeless drunk with no friends, listening to old scratchy blues LPs, taping old WC Fields and Jack Hill movies rented from Scarecrow Video, and drinking whiskey while the endless rains fell on our U-district one bedroom apartment's flat-top roof; my hot girlfriend became disenchanted--gaggles of long-haired dudes from the Blue Moon Saloon eyed my spot... I said go for it brothers and left Seattle to boomerang home to regroup and drink free. Shrooming all the way across route 90, I hit Syracuse along the way, right in time for the hardcore psychedelic revels that marked the end of the semester/earth day, an annual block party sloppy-drunk revelry. Crashing with myriad yet-to-graduate friends and bandmates, I was out of the band but still invited onstage to sing "Sweet Jane" and improvise weird lyrics to "Mannish Boy." I may have been nothing but a cut-rate Noel Redding in Seattle, but in Syracuse I was a lizard king-ish icon. Free at last, girls literally standing in line to welcome me back and confess their crushes and compassion for my loss of a girlfriend, my head full of cocky entitlement and psilocybe, it was already the happiest two weeks of my life. 

But the parents came, the students left, and finally, the last person I knew had left for home. Still glowing, I finally returned to New Jersey and the Kuersten family tract; in debt and alone and a week late. My mom started right in lecturing and a man had been waiting there, in the kitchen, to give me a urine test for life insurance - he'd been waiting an hour! No one had even told me! So I went from living the "lush life" as king of the world, to making vague excuses why I couldn't give a urine sample -- all in a matter of four hours drive-time.

That night I lay in my crappy little twin bed, alone. Pillow wet with tears, I was too young to understand that going from universal adulation to hostile indifference in one day would dampen near anyone's spirits. I felt the full weight of my Seattle failure, the shame of being a 'boomerang child' an in those days it was still not cool for dudes to cry and mope. We were supposed to man up, tie our ties and take temp agency typing tests every day until we died, in Jersey.

I was so sad I couldn't sleep. So I waited until I could hear the snores of my parents in the next room.... slowly I crept downstairs to see if I could perhaps find solace in TV and the parental liquor cabinet.


My ginger touch in removing dad's booze ever-so-quietly from the shelf was still in effect. I made myself a large "heroic" tumbler of rum with a dash of pineapple juice and began the torturous cycle through cable channels that was TV in the pre-internet early 1990s.

Suddenly out of the fog of paid programming what should appear on TNT but Richard Burton, in color (it was on TNT, colorized), fending off Sue Lyon's irresistible advances down in Mexico and basically giving voice to all my miserable woe right there on the spot. The rum hit me like a warm hug right as I saw Burton's face and recognized "Lolita." I was going to be all right!

I rushed to tape it, missed about the first twenty minutes, realized it was playing again the following night so I could tape the whole thing. Thank you, God! Thank you, Richard Burton! Thank you, John Huston! Thank you, Tennessee Williams! And of course, thank you, Sue Lyon and all the other irresistible women that Burton deals with in the film: thank you, tangle of closeted lesbian cock-blockers, nymphs, sexually active widows and middle-aged virgin quick-sketch artists with your tins of opium poppy tea!

I'd avoided the film prior to this moment because of childhood resentments against the "Iguana" in the title. What monster-loving child expecting giant iguana attacks wants to see "alcoholic priests dealing with various women in Mexico"?

Some people don't like this film for other reasons than its lack of rampaging giant iguanas. They see Reverend Lawrence T. Shannon as too passive, letting himself by fought over, pursued and pushed this way and that by various ladies, including Lolita's butch guardian, Miss Fellowes (Grayson Hall). To them he's little more than rag doll flopping in one pair of jaws after another, barely able to choose or fight back, unwilling to sober up and escape. trying to swim out to his death the minute he doesn't get his own way. Yeah, but can I suggest that if you hate him because of that, well, maybe you wish some girls would fight over you while you laid back in a similar rag doll fashion?

I've been that rag doll, and can vouch for Shannon's realism. As the very great and wasted Joe Walsh once wrote: "It's hard to leave when you can't find the door." And so when a ride shows up you nearly always say yes, wherever it's going. The only way out of a bad relationship, then, is when some woman bothers to scoop you up and steal you away from the one you're with. Whatever the new temptation is, you take it. The alternative is an ever-tightening noose of co-dependence as your last temptation slowly ages into a death trap. When things get too tight, it's time to change nooses. 

You know the score, dear reader, everyone has had their May 1990, that shining moment when more than one person is fighting to take you home to their place and you just soak it all up and let them fight it out, and then, in the end, you can only go home with one of them. You can't decide which to pick, and anyway, the party is in full swing! Who wants to go home at all? So you stay, drink more, and then around dawn, you realize you are alone, both options are gone, the person you've been talking to for the last hour is just a house plant in front of a Marilyn Monroe poster... you stagger to bed and wake up the next afternoon and its sadder than if nothing ever happened.


There are critics who also dismiss Iguana as being talky and grandiose, but you have to understand the mindset: if you're a talky, grandiose drunk with the worried realization that you've already had your glory days, and if you keep photos of ex lovers in secret drawers, and notebooks of slurred poetry and tear-stained letters you'll never send to the only girls you'll ever love while trapped in a pre-internet suburbia NJ hell, then Night of the Iguana is your movie.

Few things are more boring than a sane artist. And of course, academia and the bourgeoisie are flooded with them, and they will always suck. If you're not down there in the sludgy flooded basement of your inner mansion, digging for monsters and jellyfish and risking being sucked under by ego or illusion, then what are ya? In the living room having tea? A spot o' tea, guvna?

The sane artists are willfully ignorant of said basement; they prefer to convince the bourgeois grant-giving foundations to vote no on funding basement art -- just try to lead one of these sane artists down the stairs and just see how they fight to get back up, screaming in litigious terror. Then there are the ones with completely clean basements, they have nothing left to dig for and so their writing moves from "fiction" or "non-fiction" into "spirituality" or "Self-help."


 Fame is the main thing, then, that makes mundane formalist status quo keepers out of once visionary artists. Rather than prizing process all else, these newly famous artists fall prey to to the addictive craving of attention, success, making it big, and letting it go to their head. While self-aggrandizing is a necessary thing for some artists to overcome blocks with, eventually old Ego--a "too much thing" according to the Manson song--chokes all the pipes and the bullshit starts to rise and rise; coprophiliac sycophants gather like hyenas in some mad night club nature show; the first line you cross is free but the costs rise until suddenly the limelight isn't over your head anymore, it's below your feet and all you're left with is a stamp on the back of your hand, now slowly washing away in the early morning rain.


The summary of Iguana's own plot is a great example of the has-beenophobic male as well: right at the beginning Lawrence T. Shannon is derided by his pinch-faced congregation,  for "praying" with one of his more attractive young (female) parishioners. We never see this girl but when we next find Shannon, he's acting as a Mexican tour guide, showing old church ladies around, trying to stay awake or semi-sober as best he can. Complicating matters is Charlotte (Sue Lyon), as a wanton nymph under the care of Ms. Fellowes, a lady so misandric she could go toe-to-toe with Mercedes McCambridge in JOHNNY GUITAR.

Charlotte is madly in love with Shannon, promising him a job at her father's church and completely deluded and swept away on a girlish infatuation born of boredom. Shannon's conscience is so strict about messing around with an under-age girl that he has no choice but to drink said conscience clean into oblivion. Fellowes catches them one too many times in a clinch and threatens to have him fired from Blake's Tours. Shannon strands the tour bus near his old drinking grounds, a suite of bungalows high in the hills run by yet another hot-to-go girl with an eye for defrocked Welsh priests (Ava Gardner). Brother, the heat is on! Literally as the hill is super steep and the sun hot enough to fry the minds of some of the older ladies in the congregation.

Shit, man... and to see it all in color the first time was really nice. The TNT folks did a fine job. You can practically smell the coco de oro in the air. The black and white version is the original--the real one, I saw only much later with the arrival of the DVD, for some reason it just doesn't feel the same.


There's great anecdotes about the film, such as from Ava Gardner's autobiography (she remembers that Huston and Burton insisted there be a bar at both the bottom and top of the hill during shooting); or Sue Lyon's remembrance that she could smell the booze oozing out of Burton's pores during their intimate scenes together. Maybe that's what interests me now that I'm sober. In black and white the film seems too polished and "classic" - maybe it needs colorization; maybe it needs you, dear reader, to plunge into the cold water of direct experience before trundling back to pass out on the shore in the hot yellow sands below Ava's hillside retreat, exhausted and worn out, and ready for the nurturing succor of genius rationalizations, poetry on the edge of death, and Sue Lyon dancing in those short, hip-huggin' white shorts. Honey, have a heart! She does, Larry, she does.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

It was himmmmm! The Warrrrior did it!: Links and Celebration via He Shot Cyrus

Walter Hill's fabulous THE WARRIORS. It's leaked into my writing style so much I never even try to quote it, there must be some word. I want them. I want all... the "Warriors"! I want them alive if possible, if not wasted! Spread the word." Sorry 'bout that boppers! El Gringo shares this passion over at the HE SHOT CYRUS site and is celebrating our common heritage and blog excellence from May 21-23.  I want all the blogs he's mentioning as a lot of great writers seem to have wondrous blogs and I've not been informed... til now! If not, wasted! And Gringo's is good too!

I'd like to give shout-outs to a few ladies who may not already be shout-outted:

Tenebrous Kate - Lovetrain for the Tenebrous Empire. First of all, with that name, I'm gonna think of TENEBRAE, and then shudder in ecstasy, horror and ennui-ridden despair for never being her level of dangerous. Second of all is her grasp of how to make writing about some horrible film no one in their right mind would want to see and making it suddenly poetry. You may not want to see the film, but what you'll end up doing is just reading her review 18 more times, savoring its mastery of brevity vs. informationally packedness and letting her "take the bullet" for your poor overworked eyes.

One of the very first writers on Acidemic, the Film Journal was Karina Longworth, who blew me away with her amazing piece on Jane Campion's IN THE CUT. Since then she's become a superstar on the rise at the Village Voice, and her site Cinematical. Unlike so many who get lifted up into the spotlight, she's still edgy. She helped me get a job as a slashfood blogger which I foolishly let go of back in the phat years. I was like the anti-food blogger. The readers all but threw cabbages... marinated no doubt in a sumptuous red parfait-jeus.

Movieman at The Sun's Not Yellow (it's Chicken) formerly The Dancing Image, is a writer always on point, sharp and whetted. I'm a fan!

There's so many, but everyone knows Ed Howard and my fellow Bright Lights After Dark writers Joseph Aisenberg, C. Jerry Kutner and Gary Morris. Under-sung champions would be Out 1, Filmbo's Chick Magnet, and the Blue Vial, where Drew has been watching all of Godard's movies back to back, a self-imposed torture I wouldn't wish on anyone, including Godard himself, but the writing is keen, so jump on in!

Of course I'd mention Kim Morgan, Stacie Ponder and The Self-Styled Siren, but they've already ascended to the throne of coolness.. And I've already found two new (for me) bloggers today that I love, Calum Reed at the Ultimate Addict and Shaun Anderson at The Celluloid Highway.

Nathaniel R's The Film Experience, Neil Fulwood's Agitation of the Mind, Hans A's Quiet Cool and Bryce Wilson's Things That Don't Suck! Each ubiquitous and essential...and getting better all the time. You write a blog long enough, you write better! We're evolving, we're evolving through the ground / that you put down.... that's from HAIR, my psychedelic urchin!

Honeymoons of Terror! EDEN LAKE (2008) and A PERFECT GETAWAY (2009)


Who loves movies about rich douchebags in love? Not us! But what if said bags take their trusting, materialistic new wives or girlfriends off to the woods or some remote beach to get away from it all, and then maybe pop the question or have a honeymoon? Nope. But what if they get chased, murdered, tortured and eaten and deprived of cellular phone service once at said remote area? Everybody loves that! Eat 'em up!

See, the thing is, these hidden woodsy places ain't like our  protagonists remembered from their privileged youths; times are always getting tougher, and poor people settle into the fissures and dead ends the rich leave as they chomp chomp up the world and leave Wal-Marts like giant droppings on the now parched with tar and concrete landscape. Soon abandoned for bigger spaces, these Wal-Marts, along with woods and isolated beaches (forgotten or not yet chomped) become infested with in-bred, torture-lovin', meth-smokin' white trash.

In their misguided bid for 'a little adventure' the protagonist couple--douchebag and trophy, if you will--find more than they bargained for, something they never found in Home Depot or Bed, Bath and Beyond. Whether they fight back or cower all the way to the grave will depend on the script God gave them, but in the meantime, man, break that champagne bottle, for a jagged champagne bottle edge is a fine weapon! And damn but I got a slow-burn smitten on the Eve Mendez-meets-Ava Gardner hottie on the left (Kiele Sanchez), who gives Milla a literal run for the money in A PERFECT GETAWAY (2009).

Timothy Olyphant and Steve Zahn co-star as the boyfriends, and there's more screwy twists and turns for both than the Union Square subway station, but its in Hawaii and the scenery looks good and om--om-shakti--you can vibe on rainbows and lush vegetation instead of the heated rush hour throngs outside the Exit sign of your own real world love, New York.

Movies are more than an escape, they are an escape without consequences! They give you a round tour of the paradise you might want to see, and leave you knowing you're better off where you are, close to the dream screen and with lots of locks on the doors. What was it Carol Clover said? Something about the land being raped by the gov'ment? So the land rapes back via its people, dirt-poor rednecks? It makes these films both much more enjoyable to forego that kind of rough business and stick to straight up killin' and maimin', as the good lord intended for His flock, rather than sexual molestations. Frankly, I loved PERFECT GETAWAY, but my expectations were rock bottom as I think I was confusing it with reviews I'd read of Turistas. So if you've never seen it, presume it lame and let it take you on its almost too "perfect" thrill-away... a horror film where characters actually make smart decisions!

 

Nothing could have prepared me, then, for the genius of EDEN LAKE (2008) an Australian shocker that aims high, clear above the usual WRONG TURN elements, and into STRAW DOGS territory, keeping a smattering of the old ultra-torture porn, with the heroes having a substantial hand in the evening's violent escalations and yet nothing getting as full-blown traumatizing as WOLF CREEK, thanks to, again, no sexual violence. Yes, the shock ending is downbeat, but not depressing, if you're worried about that sort of thing, and I was. If something's too ugly it can take me months to recover. So don't worry, it's all about family and the kids being all right, and a little burning and barbed wire as it creeps quietly out of the muck of exploitation and into the realm of social commentary so stealthily it's at your throat before you know it. And don't act like you don't got it comin', eh?


On the other hand. I love WRONG TURN too! And HILLS HAVE EYES and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW remake for that matter. I mean, why not? If you're going to order a steak dinner, don't enjoy your meal and then act shocked when you learn what people had to "do" to certain living creatures for the red flesh to reach you. If I ran the world, you'd need a special "Killer" card to eat meat, and the fee would entail two days of slaughterhouse work a year... just enough for everyone to be a little less hypocritical when they weep for the beautiful soulful eyes of a sheep, then go into a magic black-out until the bones are off the table. You'll know what I mean..  in the words of the great Bertolt Brecht: "For once you must try to face the facts / mankind is kept alive by bestial acts." And hotties, of course.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Lindsay Lohan will Have her Revenge on Seattle


The public in its infinite judgmental prurience loves to symbolically burn witches at the stake via their tabloids, and if you don't count bimbos like Nicole or Paris or Britney as being really "in the game" as far as stretching the boundaries of public eye debauchery to crucifixion-ready levels (and you shouldn't) then that leaves just one knife-wielding bi-sexual hot mess incarnate to drool fire over, Lindsay Lohan. She's a lot of things, but nobody's bimbo... now.

I don't need to regale you with what she's been up to. How can you not know? It's all over the place, it infects and informs our entire tele-cine-visual-trasho-wunderland! So then, what's the deal? Is she gonna go to jail? Or is it all just a fantastic wonderful show? Even if it's real, what is reality, anyway? Beautiful starlets like Frances Farmer (right) getting the rough treatment from a brutally repressive patriarchy that punishes beautiful, brilliant women when they get out of line, that's sure real enough. But can even that be made into kind of a show, like pro-wrestling?

Consider Andy Kaufman and the way he would stage big battles, say against the wrestler Bill Blassie, and make it seem like they couldn't get through a talk show without trying to kill each other. Consider Andy's alter ego, the bullying lounge singer Tony Clifton (left). Was it just an act. for shock value, or something more artistic and genuinely subversive? To call attention to the way media hypnotizes us into believing and feeling things and having opinions on issues where we don't even know 90% of the story, this is to show us the way to freedom. Is this not the appeal of professional wrestling? We love to remember fake fighting as a child, the cathartic freedom and love that develops when you "pretend" to be mad, to fight, or to otherwise expose negativity as a fraud. Unlike the brutish mugs on wrestlers and thug mechanics, we believe the person with the cutest face and most pleading voice, unaware they could be the killer the whole time. But just from our cliche'd expectations, we'd be willing to shoot a giant dude in red spandex tights and a black mask if we saw him chasing her in the forest, when in fact it could all be an act, and he's just a one-trick Mickey unaware she's setting him up for MURDER!


If you go back in time even earlier you have the famous feud between Fred Allen and Jack Benny, or WC Fields and Charlie McCarthy -- fights that basically provided writers with material and made great press and headlines, and no one ever thought they really were going to kill each other or anything. Then Take Mr. Fields' drinking. Since he was old and a man it became a source of much comical merriment his booze problem found a home in the cultural canon. Lindsay's drunkenness has no place in that context, because why? She was once a Disney girl? Oh come on! 

Before you judge, try hanging out with those kids sober, see how long you hold out.  Have we become even more repressive a society than we were in the 1930's, when Mae West was banned from radio for daring to play Eve in a saucy Adam and Eve sketch? The man who wrote the sketch, Arch Obler, wasn't banned, he was later praised for his show Light's Out, and even then was one of the first to regularly get on air credit for his work.

But instead of Mae or Fields we have LL, and her downward spiral. Well, I've downward spiraled many times and I can tell you this: she'll either die or she won't, but unless you're a traffic cop and she's swerving down the road, or you're a relative planning an intervention. or a producer who's already paid her an advance on an upcoming role and the insurance company is demanding her plug be pulled then it's really none of your frickin' business if she wants to drink herself into an early grave, sneak off to Cannes and promote a film barely in the preliminary stages of casting instead of going to out-patient rehab, or blow holes in her own car with a shotgun like Nina Simone, or set herself on fire like Richard Pryor. It has nothing to do with you, or your appreciation or lack thereof for her music and movies - unless the flames of fires she starts singe your hem or otherwise effect your actual physical space directly. If you're only connection to her is via words on a screen or in a newspaper then your reactions are due to a journalist pushing your buttons to get you to keep reading and want to read more. If it gets you in a self-righteously indignant "burn the witch!" tizzy, then you should look at your own self in the mirror and realize that all you need is a pitchfork, a tri-cornered hat, and a torch and you could go chase the monsters and virgins around with the rest of the frightened peasants.


What's the difference between a middle-aged mom of five getting all schadenfreude excited over reading Lindsay might serve jail time vs. say, Ken Starr making Monica Lewinsky describe every hand motion she makes during fellatio live in court or the hysteria of Salem and the early 1980s that led to my great x 8 aunt Mary Easty being hung as a witch? Is this not just a macro version of the bratty sister who can't wait to tell mom how you got in trouble at school?

My friends, why not stop projecting your inner worm squirm guilt and fear and desire onto brave little Lindsay and just grab that vodka bottle out of your husband's or parents' cabinet and down a huge shot and then start hitting golf balls off the roof, or flicking cigarettes out the window at the passers-by beneath your second floor West Village apartment like Courtney Love? Be the sibling who helps the in-trouble brother deal with the parents, be the Barney Frank who patiently talks the Lewinsky affair into a non-issue, the breath of sanity in an insane world, see the light at the end of the tunnel and stop--as they say in AA--confusing your insides with other people's outsides.


It's a nice zeitgeist coincidence that the Stone's kickass classic, Exile on Main Street, gets re-released this week. When the Stones nod off and light themselves on fire it's art - when someone like Lindsay goes for it--gives the social order the finger and goes careening through life with a cigarette and Jack Daniels bottle it's not art, it's a shame. Burn the witch! You want to destroy the person who's free in order to reinforce your decision to stay cowering in your cubicle! See Lindsay, cowering in the cubicle is the only way to avoid being burned! I'm right to cower, see, taste the fire!!

The thing is, when you live vicariously through, say, the excesses of Tony Montana then you revere him as a genuine badass even after he's shotgunned in the back by that bald guy in sunglasses. But since LL is a cute waif-type, you want to throw stones and bedeck her in a burka.  

 There's a saying in AA about when you're a down and out drunk there's only three outcomes: Locked up, sobered up or covered up --- with a sheet in the morgue. Like any true drunk, LL is taking her time to decide which of the three she prefers. It's no easy question. She's been wrestling with it for awhile but the mind has great ways of hiding the harsher truths from itself. Whatever path she takes, we will lose a great rager and we will miss these days of crazy headlines and shocking paparazzi booze pics. While she's alive we should celebrate her every self-destructive moment as if she had been dead 20 years and now considered an icon, a rebel at a disease and despair-infused time that compares only to the 1950s as far as hysteria-driven moral conformity.

For Lindsay is more than another ditzy sheep in fake tanning oil and peroxide, moving from one dumb boy to another, ala Britney or Paris. Lindsay is a titan of self-destruction, like Keith "Just one drink / and I fall down drunk" Richards.  Lindsay is a queen of drunken coke-whoring righteousness; she's Courtney Love with a better singing voice, and cuter, and doesn't have a Frances Bean around to create any real concern about the safety of a minor while she gets her self-destructo freak on. I say rock on, little Lindsay! Rock on! And when you want to come in from the cold, call me and I'll show you the best  beginner's AA meetings in NYC and hold your hand during the serenity prayer!! Certain we will!

Meanwhile, for the haters out there, I wouldn't worry too much about the social order toppling under her wobbly heel. The  constrictive force of our quasi-repressive society wont weaken from a single millionaire wretch peeing on it. But... if the rest of us can rise up and follow in her wake... if we can show the same casual disrespect of our national system of constraints and punishments as she has, what dirty victories we may win! The 1970s shall return at that time, and instead of Bruce Lee, Farrah Fawcett Majors and Cheryl Tiegs posters, the kids will have Lindsay Lohan up on their walls, not for her music or acting, but because she's the hot thin female Richard Burton / Keith Richards of a new era. She's Queen Jippo! Top of the world, Ma! KABOOOOM!! God bless the button-cute hammerhead!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Stillness in Motion: CALIFORNIA SPLIT / TWO-LANE BLACKTOP


Cinema and gambling go together: like hangers-on at the races or Reno craps tables have no problem cathartically sharing in lucky streaks of others, we viewers get lost in the thick of the action, our mood rising and falling with the stacks of chips at our hero's side. And filmmakers are nothing if not gamblers themselves: moving fast and loose with huge wads of other people's cash, tangling with the odds, and making choices moment-by-moment that can make or break the bank.

Some films are just escapism, or a thrill ride away from ourselves but we can see ourselves in other films the way parents see themselves in children. I see old flames in the eyes of cinematic icons and I see my brother Fred in the dull lug wrench work involved with being a drag race mechanic in TWO LANE BLACKTOP, a mytho-poetic saga of masculinity that reverberates to my core, and shit. So how come both BLACKTOP and Altman's gambling drama CALIFORNIA SPLIT are so underseen? Doesn't anybody ever roll the dice no more?


I saw Nicholas Ray's LUSTY MEN (1952)--a story about the manly world or rodeo riding-and BLACKTOP Monte Hellman's COCKFIGHTER (1974)--about the manly world of cockfighting--a couple years back and wrote that I thought neither was on DVD in any reputable form due to their edgy titles (put together they read like a gay porn marquee). The problems besetting TWO LANE BLACKTOP (1971 and CALIFORNIA SPLIT (1974) are similar, but more of a legal rather than promotional nature, specifically: song rights. Apparently just having a Doors tune be heard while passing a drag strip car stereo can spin your film into limbo for generations to come. A bad spin of the wheel to be sure.

In the case of CALIFORNIA SPLIT, several sequences had to be removed or re-edited for TV prints due to song royalty issues--and then the remixed version caught flak from Altman purists--so on DVD it's practically a no-show. Lucky for us it's available on Netflix streaming along with a few other titles that seem to exist only there, such as LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR. I wish Tom Berenger would stop killing Diane Keaton and go after some of these AOR lawyers, though I guess they're dying quick enough on their own.

TWO LANE eventually resolved its music issues and is now on an awesome Criterion two-disc set, decades after failing to get theatrically released in a timely manner to cash in on the high of its predecessor, EASY RIDER, or to overcome the way-too-high expectations and hipster suspicion caused by a jump-the-gun April 1971 Esquire cover (right). Also, the head of the parent studio hated the film, apparently he didn't "get it." He probably would have had it been in French with subtitles, and thus had a better context of artsiness, but as it was he refused to give it any publicity. Then it had a hard time on video due to music rights. Oh brother. What a bad luck streak! And BLACKTOP uses music so sparingly, too! The '55 Chevy has no radio so all music is either heard in Oates' GTO or else playing out of speakers at the various drag spots. When the music does appear your ears devour it. The songs seem extra nurturing after the enigmatic silences and roar of exhaust pipes and V-9201 triple D hydrophonic quad engines...

Robert Altman's CALIFORNIA SPLIT (1974) is similarly about the world of male bonding via "putting up or shutting up," and "laying it all on the table" and again there's no point digging for homoerotic subtext in a movie where the subtexts have been stripped down and exposed and nobody cares because once a subtext gets exposed it either "puts up or shuts up" and if it doesn't lay down on the table it's because nothing would stop it if it wanted to, and sometimes that's enough. As with much of Altman and Hellman's output, we're immersed in a niche culture with its own insular complexity: we watch the flashing of dollars and hear the overlapping numbers, "Three to one on Egyptian Femme in the ninth by 8 points," / "You got it, Brother," with awe from a distance, like a little brother tagging along.  It seems like chaos, but the grace and quickness with which people willingly hand over huge piles of cash to each other is life-affirming. More than anything as far as plot or money or character, what's most important is the camaraderie, the flurry of activity that makes these guys feel alive.


One of the more artsily respectable of these "flurry of activity" episodes is the Rome stock exchange in L'ECLISSE (1962, above and below). You can argue here that Antonioni is criticizing capitalist greed in these scenes, but he's also marveling at the way idle humans can find something to get passionate about over nothing--for no one passes any actual money around at these stock markets. They just shout numbers: "20,000 Finsider at 20!" The effect is something anyone who's been in a foreign country and not known the language can understand and perhaps that's why subtitles make movies "seem" artsy while a film in English about gamblers or drag racers only "seems" trashy - and when either contradicts that expectation, we don't like it. A common currency breeds resentment, but a special private language shared only by your fellow degenerates creates a special nook. There's no race, age, class or gender distinctions, only who's got the cash to back up their line of bullshit.



BLACKTOP stars James Taylor and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, and the idea of having two non-actor musicians as the stars may seem odd at first, but only if you're not a musician who's ever been on tour. Let me tell you, most of being a musician is a lot like this film: you pull up to some gas station for a rest and while one person takes care of the pump, the other 3-8 people pile out of the van, use the bathroom, steal some candy, buy some soda or beer if the store is open, and wander around the grassy shoulders of the off-ramp, sneaking one-hits, peeing in the bushes, stretching, shaking the fuzziness off, staring vacantly out in space. Then you round everyone back up and then when you finally get to your venue, you set up and then wait around until 11 PM when the show starts. Then you sleep on someone's floor or in some girl's bed if you're lucky, or just stay up and drink until suddenly it's morning. Then you hit the road again. It's all uncertain and unknowable, and if you've got the guts to coast that way, and the cash, you can do it forever.

Basically, if you're a musician everything you do all day is just preparing for showtime, and until then you just kind of keep yourself in a calm, alert state. You try to avoid getting too drunk or too stoned or too tired to play well, not just for you, because you're a team. The people who rely on you are right next to you and the personalities interlock: the dynamic of the mechanic and driver in BLACKTOP is similar to, say, the drummer and guitarist, or roadies and singer. Taylor and Wilson are eerily calm as befits the type who has learned to spend these idle stretches deep within. They are road-tested traveling troubadours who know how to focus in one one thing and let the rest of the world flash by. They talk about cars if they're racers or "how'd we sound last night" if they're musicians... you have to put up with hearing how each of them sounds on the soundboard tape as its played in the car all day long until the next gig, and you forced to listen to every little bass guitar fuck-up you made because you were too drunk and trying to show off, Erich!


By comparison, Warren Oates' GTO-driver is hopelessly insecure, challenging Wilson and Taylor in a race, apparently for friendship rather than monetary interests, but of course neither team can admit that. Oates' idea of taking "the girl" and going somewhere like "Chicago or New York" is the plan by which all his dreams will come true--the "We're retired in Florida now, Mister" dream of EASY RIDER, but she's not buying it, just as Captain America didn't--and neither, once the dust of his bullshit settles, is Oates himself.

Existence on the road is all these people seem to have - they have no address, no home other than their car, or-- in the girl's case--someone else's car. Stretched out along Route 66, they're vagabonds on wheels, sleeping in shifts or just hanging out in some no-horse town at the best time to be hanging out in such towns, dawn. GTO's patter indicates he's aware of this perpetually displaced vagrancy while fundamentally unable to "accept it" and stop the idle chatter. He tells his disinterested hitchhiker passengers that these boys he's racing with "get hysterical... They run right over ya if they get the chance; but they can't stand up to the 455 no way." As if anyone even knows what that is, as if even he knows.


Some movies can portend to be about everything cosmic and cool, but really be about the director's insecurity, like Woody Allen's. Monte Hellman's are the reverse: they're about male insecurity burying itself in a spiritual discipline -- Zen and the art of the Chevrolet, and at their core reveal only a transcendental quietude worthy of Ozu or Bresson. And much as I love EASY RIDER, you can see the difference as clear as night and day between the judgmental redneck bashing of Hopper's film and the way Wilson quietly changes his license plate when driving through the deep south because he doesn't feel "safe," letting you infer deep suspicion towards out-of-staters, but sparing us any actual redneck violence.


The film's focus on the art of driving is a spiritual thing that the truly enlightened, deranged, or anyone experiencing a mid-life crisis or lysergic epiphany can understand: the thing in itself doesn't matter so much as the doing - in this case the fast-talk distraction that comes from winning money, watching races and fights and admiring each other's vehicle or poker chips. Anything can become poetry with the proper attention: the roosters fighting in slow motion in COCKFIGHTER for example. The beauty of the road is the way constant motion can breed deep inner stillness, time and responsibility escaped through some motorized loophole.  Who wins the race or fight hardly matters to Hellman? All we know is: destinations are for chumps.

Foreign films' subtitles create the same disconnect as the intense focus and foreign-ness of "carspeak" or "cockspeak." We need to be plunged into foreign situations, like kids greedily absorbing the strangeness with no intention of judging it. Make it too unfamiliar to ever breed contempt, and its art.

But it's lost, a lost art. The only ones who've come close to being believable in carspeak in the last few decades is Vin Diesel--who was able to carspeak for most of FAST AND FURIOUS without it sounding tacked on, and Heath Ledger as a zonked board waxer in LORDS OF DOGTOWN.  But look what happened to them? Five to one Diesel never makes it back, either; I'll put 35 at five to six he doesn't - even money he does but grows hair on that bald dome and gets pudgy and starts playing street thugs. Yep, I won that bet. Won it flat out, in a poker game, used to fly jets... for pink slips. It don't mean nothin' either way. Fade to Burn, George. And don't roll no post-op credits.


Sunday, May 16, 2010

Ich liebe dich so, Anita Pallenberg


I love Anita Pallenberg, extra much today. I've always loved the Nordic blonde goddess types, not the bland automaton types but the ferociously alive yet cold-at-the-core Teutons. As I listen to Rolling Stones' "Angie," I think about what the Stones would have been without Anita and Marianne Faithful to guide them, the twin muses of the twins Glimmer. The allure of Faithfull lay in her archetypal depth, her timeless beauty, both dating back to Camelot and the Celts. Pallenberg's appeal was/is more elusive; you can't even really remember what she looks like because her face is so liquid, so alive from second to second with crazy emotions, artistic freestyle, Brian Jones, ferocious carnality, sensory exultation, long teeth, and innate fashion sense. She's a wolf and 18 djinn poured into a German model's body. All I can do is offer screen captures culled from PERFORMANCE to try and hang some random adjectives on her clotheshorse from Valhalla appeal:

 
With the arrival of James Fox's gangster into their psychedelic love den, Anita Pallenberg and Mick Jagger launch a series of wigs to conceal the hooliganism of Chaz (Fox) so he isn't found by his old gang. Anita initiates the red wig and against the red decor she seems like a whole new character, but it's just a mirror of Fox's original disguise, a hideous red shoe polish hairdo, and he will eventually wear the red wig himself... and lipstick.

 
Drugs play a huge part in this transformation. Though many contemporary shamen and Buddhists don't think drugs are needed, shaman Anita swears by them, and without those shrooms, Fox's transformation would be incomplete -- like trying to reach Nevada on foot instead of in an air-conditioned limo. To choose to walk instead may add 'authenticity' but smacks of puritanism and dogma. To paraphrase Ed Wood, if God had meant for us to walk, he wouldn't have given us wings... and to insist on always walking is just as dogmatic and dorky as never walking. Taking the van to go down the driveway for the paper, for example, smacks just as bad... but hurts so good.


Films of the late 1960s and early 1970s were full of political incorrectness and drug orgies but PERFORMANCE was directed and written by Donald Cammell, a man who lived and breathed drug orgies. The difference is like night and so much later that night that it's the breaka dawn.

Speaking of which, why am I letting yet another nice day go by writing blog entries? I'm  scared of all the tourists outside, and would rather be up in my own bescarved den of creativity, hiding from the world til it's dusk and the tourists are gone, the year of the Cat. I'll leave you with a link to my earlier PERFORMANCE piece and the beautiful ode to the song, "Wild Horses" by a writer with many of Pallenberg's alluring qualities, Sunset Gun's Kim Morgan.

And check her black wig in BARBARELLA (1968)!