Monday, August 30, 2010

Acidemic Journal of Film & Media #6 to Go Live this Weds, 9/1/10


It's been a long time coming together, but with a competent new editorial staff helmed by the amazing Meghan Wright (see her co-authored site, Letter to the Preditor here), a brace of Gallic insight and a main topic lurid and true, the sixth issue of the Acidemic Journal of Film and Media will soon be insinuating itself amongst the in-crowd crowded party on the seventh floor of pop-artsy cinematic bizarro theoretical hell.

With sexy French theory/cinema deconstructive something something essays by the lauded likes of: Todd McGowan, Kim Morgan, Ethan Spigland, our French correspondent Severine Benzimra, John Bredin, David Maxwell, yours truly, and film historian David Del Valle, it's going to be weird, informational, sensational and free online. Sacre bleu! I'll be posting a link here Weds., so stay tuned. Or visit www.acidemic.com for a look at our previous issue/s.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

You Don't Need a Man, You Need a Champion


... like a hole in the head, to let the air in. That way you don't have to go farther than your own backyard to find God. Forget it, Julia Roberts, it's ELIZABETHTOWN (2005), don't even get me started.

The image all across the bus stops of the city this month is Julia, perky as ever, her smoothed face resolute, determined to eat by herself or with a rich, gorgeous male with sparkling eyes, or not at all. She's a one-woman Sex in the City minus sex, city, or clue, smiling across an exotic table-cloth at herself. Oh if her friends back home could see her now! They wouldn't even recognize her! A smile forms at a distant corner of her mouth, pink spoon to the right, imagining their jealous eyes widening.

Javier Bardem is presumably playing the same smoldering artisan from Woody Allen's VICKI, CHRISTINA, BARCELONA here (another three-word/ no sentence title). And there's nothing wrong with that except that Woody's film was full of subversive critiques of the bourgeois mindset, but EAT PRAY--in its advertising at least--sends a pro-bourgeois message to the spirituality-seeking single women who ride subways and walk past bus stops, a message that the pathetically 'human' men in your immediate environment are a waste of time, and you deserve better--a 'champion' in white linen slacks and rosewood necklaces, a bronzed statue in lands where the dollar stretches and everyone is just waiting to give you flowers and keys to their private piazza, and it's only a plane ticket and a Xanax away. Go girl! Find the courage to quit your job and drain your savings in holy pursuit of the housewife pipe dream.

Hey, you know what paradise is? It's a lie
a fantasy we create about people and places
as we'd like them to be.
You know what truth is? 
It's that little baby you're holding 
and it's that man that you fought with this morning
the same one you're going to make love to tonight, 
that's truth, that's love!  ---Charlene
("I've been to Paradise 
[but I've never been to Me])


I haven't read the book or seen the movie, so what gives me the right to criticize? Exactly! Yet I can't avoid Eat Pray Love anymore than I can avoid seeing taxi cabs, placards, or subway walls. This week the media that entombs NYC is all about Eating, Praying and Loving, and selling same. I can write about it because I've been force-fed it, maybe even wrote some of it. I'm new age enough that I hope the movie or book is different than the ad campaign, truly I do. I bought the book for a girl I once loved, kinda; I'm feminist enough that I listen to the Charlene song quoted above and I think "Hey Charlene you know what truth isn't? It's that conservative anti-feminist agenda you're shilling and that man that bought you $500 shoes this morning is the same man you're going to accuse of sexism tonight. That's truth, that's the 1980s!"

I was there, man. Cracker Factory! Goodbar! Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs! If single middle-aged women want to seek paradise without first having been to me I'm 100% for it, as would Gandhi be, or Red Foxx, or Fox News. But the ad campaign of EAT PRAY stresses the opposite of spiritual paradise, which is the Pray portion of the trifecta. Instead of simple and true grace--as seen in the humility of Bresson, Ozu, McCarey, and Rohmer--the spirituality is really just a carny attraction, an obscene promotion of all things Eat Pray and Love-ish. Paradise deferred! When you're through shopping for prayer beads step over this next tent, the truer enlightenment is waiting behind the curtain, only a hundred dollaahz!


It's a cagey kind of trap and antithetical to feminism's and spirituality's original purpose of being 'truly free.' Instead of experiencing love and prayer in this moment (the only one there is --you just missed it) and endeavoring to love everyone unconditionally, you're reminded that if you don't lose ten pounds, get your teeth fixed, get a rich Barcelona artist to pay for dinner and know all the best hang-out spots in Goa after dark then you will be a loser no matter where you are. Pray only in a very clean Indian ashram that's got lots of white flowers or you might catch Hep-C from the incense. If you do all the right things up front however, you merely have to pretend to silence your monkey mind a scene or two and I'm sure the cute yoga instructor with perfect teeth will fall.

Most of all you must love yourself: see always in your mind's eye the vision of how cute you must look with a sky blue spoon hanging out of your mouth and your eyes alight with mischief.  Instead of cultivating awareness of these kinds of traps the EAT PRAY LOVE behemoth assures us that this new trap is guaranteed to be the real thing, step right up! The ticket booth is closed but the 'machines' are working.

Want to know if you're already enlightened? Ask yourself if you've ever ignored or blown off someone who wanted your assistance or friendship; ask yourself if you've ever not stopped to help a needy traveler just because they were poor, ugly, depressed or annoying and you were late for a lunch with someone literate and attractive.

The true saint turns away no one who asks for help, and in that sense they are like a prostitute. Julia Roberts rose to fame playing a prostitute (PRETTY WOMAN), and whatever lesson there is that irony (I looked for it here), Roberts assumes her character in EAT is more of a spiritual being than her high-steppin' ho. I hope after this film Julia realizes that prostitutes are the true saints of our age. Think about it: they give away their money in the name of love (to Jesus, their sulky pimp) and they accept all comers-- be they ugly, old, deformed, crippled and/or leprous--washing even their feet if the price is right. Whatever kind of love you want baby, how much cash you got? Enough to buy ticket? Enough to buy Julia Roberts cookbook? Soundtrack CD? Ticket to Goa? prayer beads? Cheap cheap! You buy!


That's what stopped me when I was on my own spiritual road to perfect union with the almighty: God told me to befriend this annoying, obnoxious kid in my 'home group,' and I just couldn't, I wouldn't! And I knew even as I made that choice, the choice to not befriend a snot-nosed obese, stuttering sociopathic loser, I was off the path, a fallen angel, a rogue samurai, Lancelot in the rushes --lost and thorny.

That's why I can look at the ads for EAT PRAY LOVE and see in Julia's face a vacant emptiness that I recognize as the budding Kundalini serpent of awareness brought up by mediation class and yoga but then all-too-soon halted in mid-bloom by capitalism's innate sense of carny pitchmanship; the stopping short from going all the way into full awareness wherein the unconscious is all fully conscious and your head glows like a beacon in the galaxy. Stopping short to gloat over lesser mortals because "this far is good enough!"  Sabrina and I went to yoga every week for over a year together, but then one day we went to Urban Outfitter instead. In some ways, I'm still there, rummaging through the denim sale bins, my angel waiting for me to get my head out my ass so we can resume the climb. That's why I can spot the entitled 'humbler than thou' yoga chic when I see it, I am it. And I see it in every image of Roberts in EAT PRAY LOVE.

So Julia, as I creep broken and bloody past your smug and beaming poster on my way to and from my unholy job on this wheel of woe I can only sigh and wish you'd awaken for real and stop trying to be this bland everywoman that exists only in the minds of overly cautious Hollywood producers. I wish you would become instead and forever the vengeful Kali you played so well in various parts of ERIN BROCKOVICH and MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING... I want you to play the role of the Magdalene, of Grace in the third Lars Von Trier DOGVILLE movie. Isn't it time you put down the fork and picked up the butcher knife? Have no mercy, Kali Sister Jesus! Instead of Eat Pray Love say what it's really all about: Consume, Breed, Buy...Kill! Kill! (Go, baby!) Now! There's never been a meal but this one, never a land more exotic than your own unconscious frontier, never a love but that which you have right now, and self-aggrandizing prayer is cosmologically uncool, mere narcissism in a kaftan, mere oblivion... sans beautiful eyes... straight white teeth, sans cosmetically altered face, sans... everything.

So break thy inner bonds and rampage loose upon the land, as your colonial forefathers did and be not so unaware of your contradictions and tourist coarseness as you shop and eat in the lands they once exploited and taxed unmercifully. Celebrate thy age, get thy whiplash mascara groove back on, and bring home thy hand-crafted Siddhartha! Six Dollars! Two for ten! You buy! You buy now! You buy LOVE!

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Return of the Great 70s Dad: Nicolas Cage in KICK-ASS


I thought the age of great 70s dads was done, but that was before I saw KICK-ASS (2010), in which a truly cool father (Cage) manages to slide past the doting widower daddy ("mommy's in heaven!") morons of Hollywood to finally do what Batman should have been doing all along: using firearms, gutting mobsters with exotic weaponry, and teaching his 11 year-old daughter to be a pint-sized killing machine.

This is the kind of film where you see something genuinely subversive -- kids as instruments of lethal vengeance-- and know instantly that a dividing line will form between film critics that are cool (i.e. they get intentional subversion of the treacly overprotective cinema status quo) and the dull self-appointed moral guardians (i.e. status quo dogma-eating suckaz) as easy to demarcate as a scroll down the rotten tomato meter. My old editor at Popmatters, Cynthia Fuch's discusses for example the one-note presence of Marcus, Nic Cage's old cop buddy who raised Hit Girl while Nic was in the slammer, framed for his wife's murder :
Marcus serves one purpose here, to deliver the film’s not-so-earnest injunction against Big Daddy’s monomaniacal exploitation of his daughter: “You owe that kid a childhood!” With that done, the movie can proceed apace, exploiting her in every way it can think of. Serving as Kick-Ass’ mentor, savior, and inspiration, she’s abused and abusive, horrified and horrific, tearfully vulnerable and ingeniously cruel. (4/16/10)

Hahah! Well, frankly, if there wasn't some uptight backlash against all this "exploitation" the character wouldn't have nearly enough subversive zing, so I'm glad at least some critics felt the need to jump on this, like they have to make sure we know it's wrong WRONG WRONG to train our daughters to be assassins. "You owe that kid a childhood?" Really? What's a better childhood than not having to go to school and spending all your time hanging out with your cool superhero gun nut father? What is she missing? Facebook chats? Sexual subjugation and elementary school belittlement? Tedium in front of the TV? Wasted hours playing with dolls and engaging in clique-y slumber party backstabbing?

Even more inflammatory is a review by someone named Prarie Miller:
... let's just say that it's reached the point in movies where pedophiles could conceivably launch a movement protesting that double standard filmmakers get away with all sorts of exploitative behavior with children in movies that would land predators in the real world in handcuffs. It would seem that we're talking a line here between reality and fantasy, with the emphasis on a different kind of graphic at work, and a line that has been seriously crossed (Newsblaze)
 Yeah, Prarie, let's just say that... wait, what? Are you seriously using the phrase "in movies" redundantly in a sentence? Do you even know where the line between reality and fantasy is? It's not in a comic book movie, anywhere! Ever!  Don't you see that this girl assassin is a direct and intentional affront to your hypocritical projecting? More than anything, we love Hit Girl for the very reason that we know she will get you all up in arms; we know that some serious standing-up to nervous industry suits must have gone on to prevent their meddling with the script and turning her bullets into, say, tranq darts. Hit Girl is a triumph for the very reason that she kills her victims without qualms! She's an emblem for child empowerment rather than for child victimization mentality, which the Praries of the world prefer, and misread as saintliness.

Of course, as I say, without the whack-job moral guardian fringe ringing their alarm bells, you wouldn't wake up to realize that finally something genuinely ballsy is happening in a superhero movie -- a gleeful finger in the eye of the still-lingering remnants of the Hollywood moral production code and the whole "Won't someone think of the children" hysteria of films like Cage's "worst dad" film, KNOWING. Actually, Hit Girl's the first 'free' kid I've seen since 1979 and OVER THE EDGE, or the other cool kids I wrote about last week in my slam against Michael Cera (since amended), like Tanner from THE BAD NEWS BEARS!

I'm also reminded of one of the story threads in D.W. Griffith's INTOLERANCE (1919), wherein a moral crusader matron is out to rescue the exploited children of the slums, so she can drag them away from their loving mothers and throw them into a giant orphanage where they can be safely ignored in long rows of cribs by uncaring city employees. I think any girl who had the choice to be raised by Nicolas Cage and trained full time in the art of killing vs. being forced to go to some dumb public school and then come to a distracted babysitter while a single righteous mom works double shifts would choose the former. Watch fucking BLUE CAR and see how bad it could be.

Hit Girl is lucky she gets to spend all her time with a cool, loving father and when you consider (as I've written about in SALT) the usual back story of female assassins--their cruel schooling and tough surrogate parents--Nic's kindly Tod Browning-ish scheme of vengeance is a breath of fresh cool air.  He even takes his daughter to get ice cream after shooting slugs into her bullet proof vest and gives her cool butterfly knives in a big swanky box. This was the first film I've seen since about a single father-daughter pair bond that didn't make me want to wretch, and even makes me want to be a father if I could ensure I had a daughter into knives and not a dorky son into superhero comics.

For an example of the latter, let's examine another case of superhero childhood with (in this case surrogate) dad and no mom, HELLBOY.


Now, I liked the first HELLBOY which involved the origin of an adopted demon child by a squad of rough and tough American GIs in WW2. The child demon grew up a cigar-smoking badass, as if he'd been raised by Sam Fuller. But then in the insipid sequel we get this treacly homespun flashback of Hellboy as a goofy nerd, watching Howdy Doody with his glasses and buckteeth and wearing his jammies and getting tucked in by a loving and responsible... zzzz, I turned it off right at that moment. What the hell happened, "Hell" boy? Prarie got to you, didn't she?


Then there's the drably hypocritical "clean" conscience of heroes like Batman--on whom Cage's Hit Man is cheekily based--who would never, say, shoot a real gun at the Joker or something, because "killing is wrong," -- no guns, Alfred! So he has to invent all these bizarre non-lethal weapons so he can wipe out whole blocks with collateral damage (chasing the Joker around Gotham, he totals dozens of cars and I'm sure incurs a lot of fatalities), but as I've written before, he's as "innocent" as our precision bombers over Baghdad - though to their credit at least the military's not squeamish about shooting a bad guy up close.


Anyway... as Hit Girl, Chloe Grace Moretz is a revelation. Fresh air finally becomes breathable once you see an 11-year old girl eviscerate a room full of thugs and do so with a convincing air of detached cool and scary intellect we haven't seen since Anna Paquin in THE PIANO. QT had to do it in anime with the Lucy Liu backstory in KILL BILL, but that was all dark to be begin with. The juxtaposition of the day-glo highschool coming of age shenanigins in the dorky comic book guy side of things and the colorful costumes make the bloody merciless killing of KICK-ASS's pint-sized avenger all the more striking. We're just not used to it, it's original! Hollywood has this unofficial policy that good girls don't shoot guys - that's why Jamie Lee Curtis has to drop her Uzi before it's allowed to shoot everyone in TRUE LIES.

It's so liberating. One wants to go back in time and rescue Patty McCormack from her mom in THE BAD SEED and teach her to fight crime-- an army of bloodthirsty children stalking the streets! Pedophiles dying right and left. If Nic Cage's Hit Man could become a role model for all the dads of tomorrow, what a blood-stained, crime-free world we would have.


Moretz is next scheduled to appear as the vampire kid in the remake of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (above). I can't wait to read the uptight film critics' anxiety that seeing blood-sucking children onscreen sends the wrong message to parents everywhere: "Children are meant to be locked in their rooms with bibles and homework, not allowed to kill adults willy nilly!" Yeah, you wish, downpressa!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

THE FOURTH KIND: Take us to your Benzos!


"I'm having a hard time understanding what happened here!" 
--The Sheriff (Will Patton)

One of the common drawbacks of reaching adulthood is the loss of magic; the child's wide aperture for mysteries shrinks as the world is 'figured out.' Elements of life that used to baffle and intrigue are made plain, robbed of their dark aura by cold explanations in the light of middle school health class. The mysteries and horrors that can fill a child with dread and delight are to jaded adults merely nostalgia; if we get a scare in these days of torture porn and global deadening it's probably a sign we need to be on meds.

You may remember being a kid making rec room haunted houses at Halloween where you blindfolded a willing, cocktail-addled adult and made them dip their hand in a bowl of warm spaghetti, telling them it's brains. Yuck, they'd say! The adult may know it's not brains, but if they allow themselves to believe it is, the old childhood fear factor can return. It's fun, so why not? It's for the kids!

Movies like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, INCIDENT AT LOCH NESS, and CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, THE FOURTH KIND play off this 'brains in a bowl' idea, encouraging us to believe that what we're seeing is 'true;' that it's documentary footage, 'found' and frightening. As rational adults we may 'know' its not true, but if we relax our fearful grip on reality, the film becomes an aperture widening campfire tale. We can let ourselves get creeped out because we've opened up, pretended to believe just to get freaked out --it worked. Tell us it's true and we may not 100% believe you, but it's way scarier than 100% knowing it's not.


So why can't we live like that all the time? Spooked constantly by our own shadows? I blame science! Scientists discover a giant ghost frog that breathes fire in some remote volcanic island, but within minutes they've given the thing a name--horribilis pikelianis -- so now it's just another frog, so big deal. Science is all about making sure, in short, that no one gets to have any mystery in their lives. I mean, is it fun if that glowing weird ball in the sky is dryly explained away as "marsh gas" or "the close proximity in rotation of the planet Neptune"? Zzzzzz. But an alien visitor? Now I'm awake, even an adult skeptic can awake their gullible inner child if it will servea purpose, allow them to see life as interesting and exciting for a few hours.

In the end it makes no real difference if I truly believe in aliens or not, except to me. But there are some who are terrified of letting go: if an uptight scientist is blindfolded by the kids, for example, and subjected to the spaghetti brain experience, he might get very irate and lecture the children on the way brains actually feel, and that they need to do more research. Why can't they let it go and just go "ooooh yuck!" so the children can laugh and play? Are they.... doing things... with brains... in their secret labs?


By nearly every "irate scientist" standard, THE FOURTH KIND is a terrible film. But yet, one must admire it because it's gutsy enough to make nearly every mistake in the book - it's just like that bowl of cold noodles that's supposed to be brains. Maybe the kids got it wrong, and forgot to actually cook the noodles first, so in there all dry. You just have to laugh if that happens, as you will when you first see Milla Jovovich walking towards the camera to explain that what you are about to see is true... based on real events...too shocking to reveal til now! She'll be playing a crazy shrink hypnotizing people in Nome, Alaska to recount their being invaded orificially by owl-eyed 'things.' 

They're victims of.... alien abduction.

At first the abductees are merely scared. Then, to up the ante, they start acting like they're possessed by the space edition of the demon from THE EXORCIST. All the writhing and talking in ancient Sumerian and levitating and opening mouths wide enough to accommodate even the most acromegalous of dentists.


A bizarre mishmash of fake real footage, real fake footage, and allegedly real footage and an assortment of spoken audio from sessions that many people think is faked all congeals in THE FOURTH KIND, hiding the fact that a solid 80% of this film is just people being lying in bed or on couches, coming in and out of hypnosis and acting super scared--which is cool, but it seems like no one involved with the production has ever even met an actual hypnotist, or been to Alaska or read up on actual alien abduction cases. Nome is played I think by Vancouver and one of the Eastern bloc countries currently cheap to film in. Names have been changed to protect the innocent... and then changed yet again!

But hey, Milla has a really cozy yet gigantic home and office, her own single engine plane instead of a car, even a roaring fake fire, which is good since nearly the whole movie occurs in her den/office. And hey, Milla's still bewitching in her foxiness. But Nome must be really short of shrinks, because her character is way too familiar with her patients to maintain professional objectivity, and worse, unable to make a simple diagnosis of anxiety and prescribe meds, i.e. Xanax, even as they roll on the floor screaming in overwhelming horror for minutes at a crack. Instead she accepts help from that old pro nostril-flarer, Elias Koteas... and the work continues. Koteas has apparently never heard of benzos either.


Actually, let's fixate on this issue: that three doctors can stand around and watch a guy basically trying to tear his face off in hypnotized terror, and not one of them thinks to give him a fucking sedative, they just watch (as above). I kept shouting at the screen, "You're supposed to be a shrink, give him a Xanax! Or if you're just a therapist, give him a recommendation for a shrink who will." God forbid someone came to her with real problems like full-blown psychosis. She'd probably tell them to go just hang on for a few years while she fumbles with the tape recorder and tries to learn her job.

The plot is related to us via tape recordings: lots of shots of cassette players and spinning wheels -- and there's really no way to tell whose voice is whom's from the confusing mishmash of voices on tape. Is this a patient's voice we're hearing or the dead husband's? If the latter, is it the 'real' dead husband or the 'fake' one, i.e. the actor? Is this her own husband, or a patient? And again, is it the 'real' one or the one acted for the purpose of this film? Is this a hypnotically recovered memory of a patient listening to a tape recorder? Is this tape recorder remembered by Milla in the over-reaching taped interview with the director? Or is it live? Erich, are you under hypnosis, even now?
 

One guy who would love this film? Jean-Luc Godard! It's got accidental Brecht written all over it, misspelled of course, but I'm sure with French subtitles to add yet another layer of structural hyper-reflexivity, and a little ironic distance, THE FOURTH KIND would become as post-modern as any of Godard's 80s minimalist comedies with half the running time devoted to watching reels of tape spinning in their plastic casings. Just substitute petit bourgeois capitalism for aliens and it writes itself.

But other than its problems with criminal pharmacological neglect, I take no umbrage with the film's gross incompetence. There's good music (creepy!) set design (cozy!), and Milla's eyes (forget not her breakout role was as an alien in THE FIFTH ELEMENT!). The lame execution adds to the chilling faux-cumentary effect, especially as this kind of subject matter needs ersatz trimmings--the faker the better--for don't we deal with traumatic truths much easier when presented in laughably inept form? If you were to reach your hand into a bowl of real brains, wouldn't that somehow defeat the purpose, drain the fun? By that definition, FOURTH KIND is the truest and best bad fake real film since PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE! (my praising herewith).


As we never see 'anything' of the actual aliens in THE FOURTH KIND we may as well be blindfolded and just hear it as a radio show. Science should take note of this approach, because if you try to fight Medusa through a mirror, you wont know where she is and one day you'll accidentally see her straight on and die instantly. You think by blocking the horizon line of your life with a lot of props and nonsense you can obstruct your view of her-- and when someone mentions Medusa might be real you arrest them or kick them out of your lab because you're afraid if you believe in her she will come. The alien agenda is like that, but worse-- it not only wipes away those blocks so you see your death looming past the credits, you also see the alien agenda after your death, how they're waiting even farther past for your newly separated soul to rise up towards the light so they can catch in their soul harvesting nets!


So yes, I like THE FOURTH KIND. I never want to have to see it again, but I like it for its misguided bravado and humorless self-importance, like the way you want the kid who leads you blindfolded through the haunted house to the bowl of brains to not crack up or apologize but to solemnly warn of what's to come. If we're going to get all into aliens, the filmmakers seemed to reason, let everyone overact and have a good time and we can confound the whole idea of truth and get away with saying whatever we want; we can even slip in the real truth and no one will panic because audiences will think its fiction and only the brave and bold (or just paranoid) will suspect it's not.

Send in the clown cover memories
Big plusses: Milla gets to make grave diagnoses.... Resident Evil's Alice has filled her with holy power so she can say, "Something is going on, there's something strange going on in Nome" and have it ring with menace, or "conversion phenomena is something not a lot of people understand," implying she does! She understands less as time goes on, but is still miles ahead of the spooked and reactionary sheriff... or is she? A tense stand-off and a violent knife murder seemed shuffled in to keep you from nodding off and Milla's blamed for everything! Milla's haunted eyes are beautifully lit, so we can contemplate her hybrid status as we go along, and realize yes, Virginia, aliens are among us, and some of them are very, very adorable.


Big minuses: a few under-rehearsed moments of 'family angst' such as the now cliche'd dinner table of single mom with two kids--a sweet young girl and bratty older boy who wants his daddy back-- "How'd dad die, mom?" -- you can practically set your watch to the big scene of Milla freaking to the heavens: "They took my baby!!!" Elias Koteas seems like he didn't know what kind of film this was before he signed on and is acting in a kind of counterpoint to the hysteria around him, conveniently vanishing every time a corroborating witness appears to make Milla seem less nuts. I never could learn to like Mr. Koteas who's nostril breathing creates too much hairy proximity. I won't deny he's a fine actor - but sometimes fine doesn't cut it, sometimes only a bad performance can be truly great. When in Nome....


Whether or not you believe this story, believe one thing: dogmatic crank skeptics are your enemy! The noodles really are brains! And if you have any spare benzos, please send them to the stressed out abductees of Nome, Alaska, or better yet, to me. Everyone, everywhere, keep watching! Keep watching! Keep watching the pharmacist!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Girls with Dragon Tattoos Gone Wild and more in the new Bright Lights Film Journal #69

The New Bright Lights Film Journal #69 is now online!

It's got my intensely personal-theoretical-reactionary analysis of GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2009) and how the fall-out of the DIRTY HARRY revenge cycle led to Satanic panic and suburban child molestation ring hysteria in the 1980s as seen in the documentary, WITCH HUNT:

“They rapin’ everybody out here.” — Antoine Dodson

PLUS, as editor Gary Morris writes: Matthew Brennan explores the "New Westerns" along with one old one, The Wild Bunch. Matthew also takes us into TV land with a thoughtful analysis of the AMC show Mad Men. BL stalwart Erich Kuersten compellingly blends the personal and the cultural in a piece on "cinema's rape disavowal fantasy." Gordon Thomas stylishly tours some of the worthier DVD releases of the past year. Lesley Chow finds fascinating perversity in the pianist motif in films like Preminger's Angel Face and of course Haneke's The Pianist. Jacob Mikanowski has three articles this time: an ambitious discussion of five experimental films and reviews of the Hitchcock curio Double Take and the woefully underrated King Vidor-Bette Davis masterpiece Beyond the Forest. A new writer, Ron Capshaw, presents a startling "what if?" (Groucho at HUAC), and reminds us of the pleasures of Ken Russell's The Devils and Errol Flynn, the latter via a review of the recent book on old Errol. Another newbie, Dan Bentley-Baker, amusingly experiments with the age-old question, "What is a cult movie?" (MORE)

Monday, August 16, 2010

Pilgri-dendum: The Man Who Forgot to Shoot Liberty Valance

Time: The weekend's most precipitous swan dive was executed by Scott Pilgrim. Based on the first of Bryan Lee O'Malley's popular comix, directed by cult-classic auteur Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) and starring Michael Cera, North America's favorite perennial preadolescent, Scott was expected to open in the honorable $15 million range. Those who saw the movie gave it a lustrous A-minus CinemaScore rating. Problem is, few people saw it: the actual first-weekend take was a lame $10.5 million, which put it in fifth place, behind not only the new The Expendables and Eat Pray LoveThe Other Guys and Inception. "Well, this is disappointing," wrote Jordan Rapp of The Film Stage. "In an almost predictable fashion America got the Top 5 completely backwards." - Richard Corliss, 8/15/10 but also two older films, (Read more: http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,2010830,00.html#ixzz0wmqoj33D)
Since I wrote that crazy Scott Pilgrim Vs. Stallone blog on Friday (see below), I feel guilty even though I'm sure I'm not solely responsible for the bad box office described above (THE EXPENDABLES was #1, PILGRIM below even INCEPTION in its whatevereth week). I expected, based on its hype (and Expendables lack thereof at least in my little sealed-off universe), that Scott Pilgrim would break box office records and Expendables would ride off into the sunset while the Sons of the Pioneers sang "Cactus Rose" and the Michael Cera / Jimmy Stewart / Scott Pilgrim archetype would set up his gaming console in the sheriff's office and our new age of digital combat would begin in earnest.

Man, was I wrong! Like Gore losing to Bush, like the shameful vote to uphold Prop 8, America is always ready to surprise with its penchant for pendulum swings to the right. Imagine a different end to Ford's famous THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962) changed, as word gets out that Stewart's lanky lawyer had a little "help" from John Wayne (or CGI) and thus didn't really shoot Valance (Lee Marvin) and thus the sleazy cattleman rancher running against him in the western territory election had won. Can you imagine!? Our west would look, well, not unlike the way it looks now. (Read my piece on VALANCE at Bright Lights, here)

If you read my savage entry last week and wonder how I can change my tune and defend Scott Pilgrim so fast it's because, well, a) I'm a Pisces and cursed to always understand both sides of an argument and b) my hatred of wussiness has a lot to do with the way you "hate" your little brother, but still would defend him in a fight if he was getting picked on. I thought Pilgrim would win, so I jeered him, but I never kick a kid when he's already down. In fact, I switch sides, bloodying my own nose and jeering as I fall to the curb, like Tyler's mirror double in FIGHT CLUB, bitchez!!


I remember getting all mad at Mathew Broderick for his grandiose dancing and lip syncing to "Twist and Shout" during someone else's parade in FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF back in 1986 when I was still paralyzed by self-consciousness and furiously smoking to the Violent Femmes and wearing combat boots and wondering why the world wasn't at my feet. How dare this little schweinhund Ferris presume he had the right to hog so much attention, to be so randomly adored by all, purely for his ability to lip sync a song he had nothing to do with writing or recording? I was a bass player!! To me that's the height of the icky self-aggrandizement, piggybacking on other people's work: The Beatles were still in Hamburg playing their asses off every night, dodging beer bottles and trying to decipher drunken German song requests ("und sie liebt Dich, ya ya ya") when they recorded that song. You, Ferris, just wake up late, skip school and take all the credit like the schweinhundt du bist. I've written about this in the past (2008- Kill all Jonesers). I should stop kvetching, as it will only result in my falling bloodied to the curb once more. 


So yeah, I perhaps squirm when I see Michael Cera (and Jesse Eisenberg) the way I used to squirm watching my little brother doing... well, almost anything. And as Justin pointed out in his comments to my comments below, it's very easy to attack hipsters and sensitive gamers. And yes, while I would like to see them put down their gaming cubes and fight and drink and live up to their trucker hats and giant belt buckles it's mainly because I want them to be cool. I'm worried for them, for their inability to maintain eye contact and for liking Animal Collective while not on LSD. I know that if I ever got in a fight instead of just rallying for peaceful violence, I'd be smashed up pretty good. I got glasses though --disqualified!! Glasses make you immune because any guy who punches you is liable to break his hand and your nose and maybe blind you so he's got to be ready to really get violent because after doing that to your glasses and you're a man you'll either be in a coma or trying to kill him from that day on. Am I right, Scott? Now go and get your fucking shinebox! 

 

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Guns of Ceraberg: Scott Pilgrim Vs. The Expendables


 It is perhaps no accident that this weekend finds two potential big box office hits going head to head for the same tweaky gambeboy audience, one is full of old muscle head icons of the 1980s-90s, one has an anemic white kid who looks like he can barely hold a bass, let alone play one in a band but who beats an array of tough ex-lovers of a would-be girlfriend via video game-ish duels.

That's just one problem for me with SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD, another is that dumb poster art, as per below:


As a former rock star bassist, I can point out at least three things wrong with this picture. One, he's playing it like a guitar - and certainly the pose is meant to inspire this thought if you're walking past it and don't immediately know the difference. (four instead of six tuning pegs atop the neck are the giveaway), second, all 'real' bass players use their top two fingers to pluck and and a thumb to slap, never do they use a pick to strum. (Of course many fine bass players including Bill Wyman might disagree). Third, this Johnny B. Goode pose he's in is just all wrong for a bass player, for his or her job in a band is to hold down the rhythm, keep the drums anchored so the guitars can circle above, or vice versa. The proper stance would be legs wide apart and leaned back - even a girl in a skirt can do it, ala Tamara Thomas (below).

Now that's a bassist stance.

If you're already not a 'great' bass player you're much better off not trying to bust rock guitar duck walks, Scott Pilgrim! Methinks he does it to hide his face cuz he's shy. But just because I have to see this poster ad nauseum every day on the subway to work, that's not what's got my goat about Michael Cera and Jesse Eisenberg, it's what they've come to represent in the collective archetypal unconscious, it's 'the Ceraberg Principle.'

It's for me a heavy sadness that if there's any film to come out with a sensitive comedic white kid lead it has to star Michael Cera, or if he is unavailable, his slightly less anemic and curlier twin, Jesse Eisenberg. Nothing personal to either of them in real life, or as actors (they probably have much bigger ranges but are now pigeonholed), but isn't it sending a wrong message to the pale hipster dudes coming of age today? That they can be shaking in their ironically rhinestone-studded boots with longing for a hot chick, do nothing about it but stammer and then--when she gets bored of waiting for him to cowboy up, and tries to seduce him herself--skittishly refuse her advances, since she's "ahem" drunk or has 'issues'? (As Cera did in the and here I use quotation marks, "SUPERBAD.") In real life, kids that age are terrified enough -- they turn to movies to see how to act in real life and the movies just tell them "forget it, go be heroes in the metaverse, that's much more 'cooler' than real life."

Often, a good boost of courage for these fellas can be found in alcohol! It would be nice to see Eisenberg or Cera actually grow a pair of balls after having a few drinks, but it's seldom that they seem to get much courage from the bottle. Another courage booster is to actually get them into a 'real' fight... but not even a legion of zombies can rouse Ceraberg from his--and here I use quotation marks--"adorable" paralysis.

And (SPOILER!) - don't even get me started on Eisenberg and his cheap townie move of deciding to show up like a stray kitten drenched with rain on Kristen Stewart's Manhattan doorstep at the end of ADVENTURELAND (2009). As I've said before, this sends the wrong message to the small town dweebs that hip Kristens of the world leave behind when they go off to art school in the big city. Said dweebs believe that--even if the Kristen doesn't return their calls or e-mails--all they have to do is pack a duffle and buy a bus ticket, and the girl will let them stay at her studio apartment rent free until the end of time. If they were real hipsters they would know the story of the Velvet Underground's "The Gift" almost by heart, and would know that if they mailed themselves to her, they'd end up with their skull split slightly by Marsha's hammer and issuing fountains of red that pulsate gently in the morning sun.


Bosses in big city companies, for example, expect you to ask for a raise in person--not in an e-mail-- and to be strong and confident, they want to see you be try to be professional and aggressive, rather than meek and mealy-mouthed. What kind of good influence is it to win a girl by betraying the confidences of your friend--her boyfriend--by leading her to the primal scene of his infidelity? (ADVENTURELAND, again).

In short, the Cera/Eisenberg movies encourage wimps to stay wimps, to be passive-aggressive and expect everyone to do the dirty work of putting themselves on the line, so that they can hang back and judge from afar--safe in the lap of their laptops--anyone who would dare actually try to physically change things in the scary world of immediate reality. An analogy would be that old comic book ad for Charles Atlas:

Now, that's all fine and good -- you get a weight set, you start exercising, drinking vodka before homeroom, suddenly you have chutzpah to spare. But the Cera-berg version would change all that. Instead of bulking up and working your way towards a slot in THE EXPENDABLES, the comic book being read in the fourth panel (above) would change to an internet gaming site, the kicking over a chair and bulking would be virtual, via his elvin avatar on World of Warcraft, where he blows away the bullies with a magic bass. Hurray for Scott Pilgrim!

When he returns to the 'real,' his girl is waiting for him, presuming he's done all this to get in her pants, mistakenly believing his stutter and stammer is due to his burgeoning libido... but nope, he then stops to let her know that this sex stuff doesn't fly because, she's, um, drunk, or something...or else you get her pregnant via your two pump chumpery and never change out of your gross track team shorts... better go call "pop-pop" in prison you little Arrested Development yitz! You Max Pisher!

 
Actually I don't mean to imply by calling him Max Pisher that Max FISHER, from RUSHMORE (1998), fits the Ceraberg mold, for he surely does not. In fact he's a great role model... and if no more rugged than Cera he can still at least exude confidence, Jesus Christ! And he even ends up both getting even with--and befriending his main bully opponent--a gruff Scotsman who calls him "Fisha!"And Max does so through resilience, genius and sass rather than mewly-mouthed avoidance and video game wizard-sublimation. Let's see some others, wanna?


BRICK (2006)
"Along with the amazing, clever dialogue and the great use of geometric composition to establish a sense of suburban desolation at every turn, this is easily the best neo-noir since The Last Seduction, and an important step forward in showing young male viewers a protagonist other than the simple minded hunk bore who gets the girl or the coded gay best friend hysteric in the chick flick, and the sneering pretty boy, the geeky obese avenger, and so on. Enacted by Gordon-Levitt, Brandon is an inspiring character who should motivate a generation of shy teens to stand up and take their punches like a man, then throw back with everything they have, all in the name of love... baby. Lukas Haas also scores as the drug kingpin. They have some great Sergio Leone-style staring contests." (One of my very first acidemic blog posts! 11/06)

Tanner (BAD NEWS BEARS, 1976)

What Tanner (above, right) lacks in size he makes up for in foul-mouthed courage. Shown here drinking a Budweiser (which has hopefully yet to be replaced via CGI with a coke in the DVD), tanner steals the show with great lines like "You can take that trophy and shove it up your ass!" and "All we got on this team are a buncha Jews, sp*cs, ni***rs, pansies, and a booger-eatin' moron!"

Well, hey, it was the goddamned 70s! We didn't have political correctness yet, so as someone who was Tanner's age when he saw this film in the theater, I'd like to cap it off by saying: "F**k you, if you're gonna stick up for that bunch of shaky nerves on a white boy stalk, Scott Pilgrim instead of rockin' with your cock deep in THE EXPENDABLES!" While the battles Cera engages in are clearly 'not of this world,' more like challenging opponents to game of Mortal Kombat 7, or Guitar Hero: Bass Edition, Bad News Bear's Tanner unhesitatingly picks a real life fight with two kids twice his size after they humiliate his even smaller teammate. He winds up in a trash can, somehow still victorious! So once again, F**k you!

Every last kid--including the girls--
(aside from the narc)--
in OVER THE EDGE (1979)

Michael Cera is probably at least five or six years older than even Matt Dillon in this film, and yet any one of the kids in OVER THE EDGE could kick his ass, except at Mortal Kombat or Guitar Hero, which is apparently where all fights are settled these days. But don't worry, they didn't have cell phones back then, so your humiliating defeat at the hands of a kid half your age and weight wouldn't get uploaded to youtube.

So, yeah, doesn't it bother the Eisenberg/Ceras that younger, smaller kids with a lot less muscle mass and access to alcohol can beat the crap out of them, all just because not everyone is a wussy hipster with weak wrists from too much gaming who masks his fear of pretty girls via esoteric pop culture quips? 

In the real fighting world of blood, sweat, time, and endless punches to the gut and face, the 70's kids above would maybe get bloodied up if they were fighting older bigger kids (as happens to Carl the lead in OVER THE EDGE) but the next day, the guy they had the fight with would probably show them some respect, for taking their lumps like a man. Of course nowadays courage is not easily tested outside of the digital arena, or the military, or kick boxing class, as in NEVER BACK DOWN (see my Bright Lights Blog entry, "Why We Still Fight," here). 

Naturally, my anger over this issue stems from unresolved feelings of teenage cowardice on my own part--all those tender moves I was afraid to bust because my heart leapt into my throat and I thought I'd pass out as she leaned in to be kissed (or did she?)--or backed down from bullies' provocations only to kick myself for not standing up to them later--I was as terrified as Michael Cera, but one thing's for sure, if the girl did actually bust a move herself, or gave me any sort of clear sign, I didn't leave her hanging with a lot of lame excuses. And if I got in a fight, I didn't run, I just went for 'the sweet spots' like a dirty fighter, like the son in HISTORY OF VIOLENCE.

So Michael Cera, Jesse Eisenberg, isn't it time you stopped being girly men, and learned to bow down to the muscle! Bow down to the manly muscle men of the 1980s, who happen this very week to be exhumed en masse in a final box office blow-out of becrunched limbs and rapid fire Contra-killing fury, here to beat your puny girl arms to shaky pulps ("You crushed my guitar hero finger!") in this weekend's no prisoners war for total box office victory, THE EXPENDABLES!

(Yeah, I know.. they don't have a chance. 
Damn you Scott Pilgrim! Damn yoooou!)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Johnny Two Times, because he said everything ad nauseum


That dumb-looking movie released this week, MIDDLE MEN (2010, above) is clearly--just from the preview which is all I ever want to see--modeled on the now-classic GOODFELLAS (1990), i.e. Rags to riches to rags with a male voiceover spoken in disaffected regular guy English ala "We were just a buncha regular guys, hustlin' to make a buck like everybody else." and "I mean we had 24/7 cocktail jet plane lunches, villas, private pools -- it was all there for the taking, and we f**ked it up." All this while period bling flies by in short overlapping crosscuts with slow-mo walking scored to rock or soul classics through nightclubs where everybody knows your name: "All Along the Watchtower" or "Superfly" depending on the era and the race, blurred together in one movie-length montage that indicates the editor considers this a crazy ass trip - but your mileage is bound to vary.

Off the top of my head, the Fella imitations include: BLOW (2001), LORD OF WAR (2004), to a lesser extent AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007), even 2005's DOMINO, though the last basically gets it right, probably thanks to its real-life subject acting as advisor. I'm sure there are others I haven't seen, like CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR, which I also saw the preview for, and remember its use of the now horribly cliche'd "Watchtower" playing over a slow mo walk around a red-lit club as Tom Hanks narrates in the "It was a time when anything could happen... and often did" vein in the preview.

The main ingredient missing, which most director copycats don't understand, is drug culture accuracy. You either know the culture or you just get the info second hand from other films, and any hep person can see the difference a mile off. TRAINSPOTTING (1996) latches into the speedy thrill of drugs that GOODFELLAS captures in its landmark awesome "big bust" day, and rides it like a bullet, but most of these imitations forget about the druggy effects of good editing and instead just copy the form -- kind of like the way those college campus-sponsored parties where you can't smoke and they don't serve alcohol, and everyone pretends like it doesn't matter and that the party's not lame and they're not losers just acting a role of party goer for each others' illusory benefit. They prefer to ignore the minutiae of the drug world they long to depict, beyond what they read in Rolling Stone.

You know the issue, with Neil Young on the cover?

Neil Young on the cover? 


To narrow it down, lets focus on two GOODFELLA-wannabes that I have seen: LORD OF WAR is "fiction based on true events" which means it's not even based on a true story, the way, say, GOODFELLAS was based on real life mobster Henry Hill's actual memoir (and he acted as 'trip' advisor). BLOW--a script based on a dealer's memoir written in minimum security prison--lacks any connection with the cocaine and marijuana dealing world beyond numerous viewings of GOODFELLAS by its director and proves the point that you're an L.A. phony who never stepped outside the movie set bubble your details are going to ring false no matter how many coke parties you've cruised or heard about. And both BLOW and LORD OF WAR ring as false as loudly GOODFELLAS rings perennially true.

What makes Marty Scorsese's lower rung Italian mob films work so well because, for one reason, he grew up watching wiseguys across the street from his house while he convalesced with a string of respiratory illnesses as a child. When he strays from working class Italian New York, however, he strikes out as often as he connects, i.e. his last four films with his new life partner, Leo DiCaprio (THE DEPARTED excepted, of course, your highness). If he partners with Nicholas Pileggi or Jake La Motta or some tru-baller like that Marty can make a film so authentic you go into a kind of swooning trance, but with a thug-lite like Leo it's just the Hollywood bubble filming itself through a reflection. The film Marty needs to make would be about Leo: a drama about a once great actor squandering his romantic lead gifts in order to ape De Niro in roles that he's just too purty fer.


LORD OF WAR on the other hand rests on the conceit that it's a dark political satire. It's important! 60 Minutes-style important. But I left the theater feeling ripped off. Even the little details (Cage laying out a line of coke on the leather car seat each time he drops brother Leto off at rehab; the Darfur-type arms dealer halving a payment of blood diamonds with a machete after conscience-stricken Leto blows up half the arms delivery; picking up hot models at the Chelsea Piers 'arms convention') ring false, like writer-director Andrew Nicol is 'trying' to come up with funny little details to mesh into his skeleton framework, like he's quietly sneaking peaks at Robert Mckee's Story while trying to be 'true' to half-remembered facts from some article in Time magazine. They could have filmed Brecht's Mother Courage and been much better off, or even used it as a reference! Compared to LORD, Mother Courage is a bedrock of gritty authenticity. I know, that's like saying Godard's re-enactment of Vietnam in PIERROT LE FOU is more gritty and authentic than PLATOON. It's not, but it is more authentic than the Vietnam of FULL METAL JACKET -- another film that feels like the director presumes no one else has seen a single other film about Vietnam.

To lay out the LORD premise: Nic Cage is a Brooklyn Russian-American diner worker who decides out of the blue he wants to get into arms dealing. Knowing nothing about it, he goes to an armory convention with his better-looking younger brother (Jordan Catelano, above). The first thing they spy are two hot convention models posing by a big tank, wearing camouflage short shorts. Cage goes up and tries to worm his way into a conversation with someone he recognizes as a top flight arms dealer. Next scene - Cage and brother wake up sleeping next to the hot models in their hotel room. Ta-Daa! Not only does it seem Nicol knows nothing about arms dealing, he doesn't even know anything about conventions, or at any rate, being at a convention when you're just a working class Ukrainian-American shlub trying to break into the big time weapons dealing with no capital instead of just being the guy who made GATTACA (1997). Instead wasting all his money on what are assuredly very expensive ladies. Our two Latvian brothers wake up next to them to prove they are two wild and crazy guys as the writer could never write a believable seduction scene or even a prostitute monetary negotiation.

What does it matter? Cage is now "officially" an arms dealer. Later he magically has a Ukraine military General uncle anxious to unload a bunch of discontinued Russian tanks and armaments. How fortunate! Nowhere is there that kind of authentic "shop talk" you would find in, say, THE GODFATHER or THE FRENCH CONNECTION or THERE WILL BE BLOOD or any movie by Robert Altman, Howard Hawks, or Sam Peckinpah, where you soak up the strange lexicon of a particular lifestyle. Going in to see LORD you know just as much about the international arms trade as you do coming out, presuming you've ever read a Times article on child soldiers in Africa. Hell, IRON MAN tells you more about the international arms trade.


In the end, the GOODFELLAS difference is that Marty knows the minutiae personally - he has a keen eye for authentic Italian detail: the thin slicing of garlic for the sauce while in jail; the way a coked-up Henry gets obsessive about stirring the sauce and breading the veal: "I'm gonna cook all this... I'm gonna cook all this meat!"; the slow peripheral way his wife becomes a coke head; the snotty babysitter drug mule cutting vegetables; or how each of the mob cronies is a unique character unto himself, like "Johnny Two Times, because he said everything two times."

In Hollywood's GOODFELLA-ripoff cycle, it's now Johnny 20x, who says less each time, but with more money and a voiceover that doesn't even try to hide the fact that it's borrowing even the inflection of words from Ray Liotta. Any good writer would be smart enough to embed him or herself into the sleazy milieu they wish to write about, or interview--in depth--someone who lived through this kind of stuff. (Howard Hawks famously had real mobsters from Al Capone's gang on hand during the shooting of SCARFACE.) But any smug trust fund idiot who saw GOODFELLAS (200x!) thinks he can "do a movie like that" even if he doesn't have a mom like Tommy's,3 who makes paintings (at right), where "one dog's looking one way, one dog's looking the other way, and this guy's goin; "Whadda ya want from me?"

Another way you can always tell when the filmmakers aren't Marty Scorsese is because all the mobster's clothes look like they're fresh out of the costume department: pure black, ironed and empty of lived-in detail. Nobody smokes or drinks, unless it's 'crucial' for character development, and then it's just one scene, one cigarette, held onto like a kid holds onto the candy version, or one sip of a drink which is then left behind, half-full. A Scorsese character meanwhile smokes until his fucking fingers are yellowed, his curtains dingy, his ashtrays scratched by careless maids.

You can tell even in bar scenes: a guy in a bar in a Scorsese film orders a drink the way a real man orders a drink, "A Cutty and watta" = a Cutty Sark (a scotch) cut with water; "gimme a seven and seven" - that's a Seagram's Seven (blended whiskey) and 7-UP, on the rocks. A guy in a movie like LORD OF WAR says: "Gimme a drink," and the bartender magically knows what that means. In real life, even "Gimme a beer" is total bullshit. Dude, you can't just order 'a beer' at a bar. Be specific! Has anyone ever gotten away with being so vague? Do you want a pint or a half pint, a bottle or a draft? A Bud or a Heineken? We also have 150 microbrews on tap... and if you can't answer her because all you do is watch movies in a plastic bubble, well now you're looking like a grade-A idiot, the kind all the liquor ads pitch to, the young man of means stepping into the post-21 bar tourist class. And how come after drinking a whole drink of presumably straight liquor your face is not flushed, your voice not slurred? Where is the music on the jukebox that makes you have to shout to be heard by the person next to you? Scorsese wouldn't let details like that slide. Scorsese must have actually been to a bar at least once in his life. Imagine that.

As for BLOW (left, 2001), I don't remember hating it quite as much, but I still felt like I was watching someone try to tell the same story as GOODFELLAS without any of the skill, expertise, experience, or patience. I realized early on it would be too weird for my date to suggest we sneak out and duck into something else, so I just made the best of it and marveled that anyone as dumb as the protagonist played by Johnny Depp could even survive one drug run, let alone dozens, before getting busted. The only real part for me was when he's fighting with his bratty-hot Latina wife (Penelope Cruz) while being pulled over for speeding, and in a blind rage she tells the cops he's holding. I had a chill because I could have easily imagined my then-wife, a high-strung but very statuesque Argentine filmmaker, doing just that! Luckily by then I was safely embedded in AA and long since out of 'the biz.' Dude, they should hire me as a drunk/druggie technical advisor. I'd demand everyone finish their drinks and have to talk loud over the jukebox. And no one would get away with ordering "a drink." They'd learn to be shpe-shific! La putre madre forro! 

You can look all over these other films and you'll never find another moment that even approaches the giddy highs of GOODFELLAS. Even CASINO--Scorsese's own ripoff of GOODFELLAS--never really brought it home (though it's still compulsively re-watchable and hypnotic). So there it is, the way Hollywood steals the thunder but ignores the rain, then wonders why their version of the storm rings so false and no one goes home soaked. We asked for spaghetti and we got cold noodles and ketchup.

 Now you can't even smoke in bars. Or dance. Next up, volume limits. Cops with decible measurers, next a guy going around making sure the ice isn't too cold it might hurt your widdow toof.


Perhaps part of this horrible sanitizing is the curse of the information age - computer screens take the place of night clubs and all conversations aren't at bars but on IMs. In short, as filmmakers struggle to make stories about the internet into films, we can relax and know that, at least in this decade, being stuck at home in witness protection may not be so bad. We didn't have the internet when GOODFELLAS came out --a lot has changed. Marty now has Leo and screenwriter William Monahan to steer him away from his Italian neighborhood and into the uncharted terrain of Boston accents and shadowy conspiracy, so he's out of "real" details himself. And Johnny Two Times will never get "the papez, the papez" because he hangs frozen on a hook in a meat truck for all our sins. Johnny Two Times! Thank god you never lived to see the papez replaced by the kindles... the kindles.


NOTES:
This post is dedicated to my dear buddy, David Maxwell, who introduced me to Goodfellas and thus changed my life forever - he tried to introduce me to Kindle, but I gots to hold out a little longer.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Vampire Lesbians of '76-'67

Dress your wife like you do the women in the streets
believe me, you'll have a vampire too.
                               --Vamps of '28 (Whistler's Jug Band)

The phrase vampire from the song lyric above refers to the aggressive gold-diggers of the late 20s, far more common in the age of prohibition than now, thanks to moral repression and the economic changes of WW2. The "vamp" was also a silent film staple. Theda Bara (below left) was its ultimate expression. And then she was gone. And when she came back, she was gay. Men could now walk the streets in relative safety.

While the (straight) girl vampire in 1928 was a femme fatale in an age when sex was commodified on a much less simulacratic level than now, the vampire lesbian was/is different: A functional metaphor for the seductive magic of cinema itself, she is simulacarum squared! She doesn't even need the masculine gaze to exist, and that soothes the weary masculine gaze big time.

Her mystery cave beckoning victims to a Venus Flytrap-style blood draining, the vampire woman conjures an erection wherein the blood isn't kept inside the phallus, but drained, so eventually the man's whole life and soul is sucked up through his..."ahem". It's a literal reading of the mythic, long-heralded 'draining' power of the feminine that manifests even in just getting a man's attention. In the real of the post-orgasm bedroom, sex can leave men depressed, gasping for air; the whole horrible truth of the grand genetic bait and switch made bare; the wizard's curtain ripped back to expose the snarling, endlessly self-replicating human reproductive drive. What a drag!

Cinema carries a similar bait and switch: it beguiles us with its lurid posters promising all it can never give, always leaves us wanting more, keeping us mildly entranced until we feel we've got our money's worth, then dumping us to the curb. All we have left for our money is a little ticket stub, with her phone number on it, to call for the next available show times. The vampire woman got you again! So we realize we mustn't get too close to her and the safety of the film screen's relative distance lets us study her right up close, and when she's not with man, but with another woman, there's no jealousy. We can safely dissolve into the ether.

Dracula's Daughter (1936)
That so many vamp ladies are lesbians bespeaks volumes to humanity's problem of being unable to successfully civilize the basic act of animal copulation. Lesbianism can seem from an intellectual point of view to be more evolved than "straight" sex with its messy pregnancies, STDs and ejaculates. Orgasms leave you hopefully transported for a few minutes, and when you come back to reality you're more relaxed, but hey, it's still this vile reproductive cycle, this demon drive for life that's got you in its sway.

Vampire lesbians don't need none of that stuff; they're undead, beyond concerns of reproduction, and--even better-- they have only one particular use for men, as a drink. Our responsibility to them as protectors and caregivers is gone. As men in the audience or at home watching DVDs, we're free to cheer on our own coming irrelevance.

The vampire male meanwhile (presuming he's straight) has only one chance at keeping his cool in the face of such staggering chic, to just not put out... ever! It drives the Kristen Stewarts wild!! But at what cost?


If you're an artistic, deep vampire dude with perfectly mussed hair and have been having good sex for say 90 straight years--with partners living, straight, gay, and undead curious--then I can imagine you have moved on from caring much about it. There's nothing left to prove. Most spiritually evolved beings will tell you that after a certain age, sex falls away like a booster rocket. One may make love like a lesbian, i.e. more orally motivated, less genital/orgasm-centric... more giving, less intimidated by big black vibrators, but the sex drive will probably come back and throw you off your game. So for all intents and purposes, that makes you a eunuch, free from being anchored to the demanding phallus. But then... Kristen Stewart is so cute. So you have a big dilemma, don't you, Edward? Don't you wish you could be a vampire lesbian?

Though a certain train of feminist critical thought sees the appeal of lesbian erotica to men as a kind of a priori mastery/ownership--we see the mise en scene as waiting for us to step into the screen and supply the third wheel missing ingredient--I've always argued the opposite, that male identification often takes the form of rivalry or fraternal admiration or distrust via male characters on film. We want to admire the courage of men as if they were our older brothers; we don't want to see them spazzing out and embarrassing us, you know, like little brothers. Men want to see men they can learn from and respect, or ridicule, not identify with except in the most rudimentary narrative immersion kind of way.

The pure lesbian vampire scenario then actually frees us from all direct "identification" inside the narrative, including the fraternal, so we're free of having to 'compare' our size, if you get my drift, or worry about not fulfilling our responsibility to fret. If there is a guy character in the lesbian vampire scenario who's not a slimy sadist or English hippie deserving death for being so trusting then we eventually may come to like him, but generally without a man in the picture we can retire our narrative outsider status and dissolve: It's the death drive coming to a nice cul-de-sac! You can admire the sex and carnage but from a nice respectful distance, the distance of an unborn spirit that may now stay unborn, for there is no seed in the picture by which to sprout into tedious life.

Vampyres (1974)
That's why my interest in lesbians always pulls to a grinding halt when they get all mushy over adopting a child or getting their hands on some sperm either from a donor or a trusted friend (which is why I couldn't get five minutes into THE L WORD). Ladies, I wanted to scream at the TV, you just took the coolest thing about being lesbians and changed it, in order to be as cloying in your pro-family sentiments as the very behemoth we were rooting for you to destroy all this time.

The Vampire Lovers (1970)
Luckily,  being both a vampire and a lesbian is a double whammy of reproduction prevention, ensuring no last minute addition of an "Oliver" to your inner TV show once it gets within spitting distance of a shark and motorcycle ramp. Still, in case you're a novice, tread lightly (by which I do mean Jess Franco's VAMPYROS LESBOS and Jean Rollin's anything). Stick with Hammer's THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970), and now in Blu-ray, VAMPYRES (1974), and of course DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS (1973), and the gray-market only but Jeeze it's Vadim's best film, BLOOD AND ROSES (1960, top). Classic horror fans already know that DRACULA'S DAUGHTER (1936) is pretty cool but she never lets her hair down. If you're all out of other options, you could do worse than THE HUNGER (1983, below) but the hair is even worse (see below and cringe in pain for those doomed 1980s).


The source material for all this lesbian vampire chic is Le Fanu's CARMILLA, a French novella from the golden year of 1872. In other words, its very Gothic, very French, and  tres erotique. It's included in the Criterion set for VAMPYR (1932), which is presumably has a lesbian vampire somewhere in the story (I've never managed to stay awake to find out). You can also read the whole 1872 text for free here. Dig this passage, told in first person from the innocent young girl victim's point of view:
She used to place her pretty arms about my neck, draw me to her, and laying her cheek to mine, murmur with her lips near my ear, "Dearest, your little heart is wounded; think me not cruel because I obey the irresistible law of my strength and weakness; if your dear heart is wounded, my wild heart bleeds with yours. In the rapture of my enormous humiliation I live in your warm life, and you shall die, die, sweetly die into me. I cannot help it; as I draw near to you, you, in your turn, will draw near to others, and learn the rapture of that cruelty, which yet is love; so, for a while, seek to know no more of me and mine, but trust me with all your loving spirit."

 And when she had spoken such a rhapsody, she would press me more closely in her trembling embrace, and her lips in soft kisses gently glow upon my cheek. (Chapter 4)

So next time you're alone in the night somewhere, try whispering in a sexy voice, "Carmillaaaaa" over and over, really slowly, and see what happens. If no one answers maybe you haven't even been born yet.  But I bet someone answers, and you learn the rapture of that cruelty which yet is love...and that you dress your wife like you do the women in the streets, and believe me, you'll have a vampire, too, lord lord. So for god's sakes, bring protection, the cross, the stake, the jimmy, and the will to run back to your wife, praise Whistler's Jugs!