Monday, February 28, 2011

Peyote Rider: BLUEBERRY, i.e. RENEGADE (2004)


Based on a French comic book, BLUEBERRY (RENEGADE) never got much of a release here in the States, but hey, it's got BLACK SWAN's Vincent Cassel; Michael Madsen as a psychotic bad guy; loads of ayahuasca-style trips, and sudden horrific violence. It's kind of slow moving, color saturated, and grandiose, but hey, the visuals are trippy--almost too trippy--and as I'm writing for a blog called Acidemic, that's something I thought I'd never say.

Truth be told I rented this, got about 1/2 way through and had to stop since it was a bit too much like one of those old Heavy Metal comic book stories with almost no dialogue and just lots of hallucinations rendered by Moebius (POST NOTE: which makes sense since he drew the comic, see left) and a Jonah Hex-style cowpoke seeking his Indian familiar high in the Zzzz. One day I'll get back to it... in the meantime, I wanted to let the Acidemic readers know this film exists, in case they wanted to take the plunge... let me know how it ends.

Psychedelics are tricky and doing them in terms of a violent western with demonic Michael Madsens terrorizing the landscape, I mean, after awhile even the trippiest visuals in the world are just wearisome, like someone's having your hallucinations for you. Seeing all the morphing snakes and lizards, I was reminded of when I saw MONTY PYTHON in the college theater on acid and hallucinated all sorts of basilisks in the rocks and muddy hillsides. Having someone render them all for you in CGI is nice, but somewhere in there, maybe a point is missed? Like there's psychedelics and there's cowboy and Indians afoot here, but is there something higher, a third note infused in the two that makes it all more than the sum of its parts? Or is it kind of cold and strange and 'off' just a little bit? Or was I just cold and strange and off a bit when I tried to see it? That said, if I were to see just one western on acid and EL TOPO* wasn't available, I'd pick BLUEBERRY, aka RENEGADE.

Below is a clip from one of the more psychedelic parts. Pretty damn psychedelic:



* I also only ever got halfway through EL TOPO! Go figure. Still waiting for the right 'off' mood.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Amnesiac Cinema: THE HEADLESS WOMAN (2008) and SUCCUBUS (1968)

  "I would have preferred modernity. Here you move and everything squeaks."

The amnesiac occupies an understandably hallowed place in European cinema, where endless language barriers, culture shock, and class stratification work both for and against a sense of formed identity. If a woman wakes up and doesn't remember her own name or what she's supposed to be doing with her life she can still get by fairly easily if she's wearing decent clothes and doesn't have a panic attack. Whole European films can go by with this uneasy sense of displacement. Do these people talking even really know each other? Is the girl in THE HEADLESS WOMAN trying to conceal that she doesn't know who she is or who anyone else is, or is she faking to avoid having to report possibly running over a child? No one asks her anything specific, she's able to cruise through her Argentine town on auto-pilot, everyone preparing for her arrival and departure like no matter where she chooses to go she's expected.

Unless it comes with a big forwarding narration or establishing title crawl (i.e. "A long time ago in a galaxy far far away...") we come into each new film we see just as uncertain about everything. We are all amnesiacs in the audience, unless we've seen the movie before, so an amnesiac heroine can just seem... modern. She actively resists interpretation, as if she wandered in from the movie across the multiplex and no one dares tell her she's in the wrong place. She resists our using her words and expressions to establish her identity and relationship to those around her. She stays neutral so as to not admit she doesn't know the correct response to each new challenge. A man keeps bothering her, touching her, and she doesn't know if its her husband, a lover, a brother, or just a pesky stalker, and she doesn't dare ask.

The drawback to being so free of class distinctions here in the U.S. is that you can't just walk up to random people and start conversations and expect to be taken care of by the indentured class. Who do you choose to ask for directions when you're lost? What economic/class group are you in? Can we ever be sure the person who approaches us and seems friendly won't in the end be just some homeless bum asking for money, or a serial killer? Are you one?

In THE HEADLESS WOMAN, the (possible) amnesiac is Veronica (Maria Onetto), a dentist in a small Argentine town. Wherever she goes people know just who she is, or seem to, and someone seems to be cleaning up her past behind her as she goes. Her amnesia begins when she hits her head on the roof of her car after running over... something, either a dog or a small boy - she can't trust herself to remember, and as the film goes on, we don't know what her game is. What first looks like a cop digging up bodies on the side of the road turns out to be a plumber digging up a clogged pipe; the droning dissonance of pop songs on the radio seem halfway to being haunting ghost voices in her head, they almost seem to accuse her. In one of the greatest scenes she hides out in a bathroom in the hospital and neither she nor we quite realize the nurses barging in are not after her at all. The only thing we do know: director-writer Lucretia Martel is a friggin' genius.


It helps to understand socialism and the much more enlightened way that doctors and dentists don't automatically get to be rich in places with truly socialized medicine. Argentina's doctors still make house calls and hospitals, like museums, have a rundown look we usually associate only with public high schools in this country. Frankly this how it should be, and having been there twice with my ex-wife, once before once after the economic collapse, I can vouch for the casual, physically affectionate way people relate to each other, based almost purely on signifiers of either the young intellectual class, which included doctors and dentists, the noveau riche (which most Argentines refer to simply as "gangsters") and the very poor, the local Indian class who here in the complex mise en scene of THE HEADLESS WOMEN have a kind of mystic spiritual omnipresence.


When looking for comparisons one must go to Russia, a huge cultural influence on the hip socialism of Argentina. Woody Allen's CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS covers similar ground but is a shrill Jerry Lewis face compared to the subtlety of Lucretia Martel, which is born of Chekhov. Argentina has a close relationship to Russia, to the point where many people are given Russian names (1), Russia is certainly a land of an illustrious but strange, violent past and the 'amnesia' of THE HEADLESS WOMAN recalls the mystery of Anastasia,  the black spots in Russia's history thanks to its various purges and Argentina's own 'Reign of Terror.'

To explain, I quote this passage from Suddenness May Happen's Adrian Bregazzi:
On 24th March 1976, a military junta under General Jorge Videla overthrew the Perón government in Argentina. On 19th May, Borges, Ernesto Sabato and other writers met with Videla, expressing their support for the overthrowing of the Perónista terrors, and for Videla's stating that "the development of culture is essential for the development of a Nation."

Between 1976 and 1983 an estimated 30,000 people were 'disappeared' by the Argentinian Dictatorship. On 15th December 1983, writer Sabato became president of the newly-formed National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons, the government-established commission empowered to investigate the 'disappearance' of persons in Argentina over the previous 20 years.

In 2007, in his book “Cultural Amnesia”, (the now) Clive James published a personal diatribe against Borges, confiscating his years of creative work and judging him posthumously guilty of silence during the Dirty War of the Argentinian Dictatorship (1976-1983).
Not to get into the whole mess down there, as Martel's protagonist is so strange we're never quite sure if she even has amnesia. And I don't want to spoil the 'surprise' or lack thereof, let's just say that the openness of interpretation is key, because there are two ways to watch an amnesiac movie, and only one will give you pleasure, the other will make you feel 'left out'. If you assume the woman doesn't have amnesia, for example, the films listed here can seem distended, dull, unfocused, sort of like if you walk into an Antonioni film halfway through with a head full of sugar. If you bear in mind the amnesiac precept, you can get your mind kind of blown thinking about the world, language, cultural and gender barriers that separate us and make it relatively easy for a woman--or a country--to go through life with no sense of the past. And the best of both worlds is to have a protagonist who shares our foreign film culture shock in such a way as we never know which one of us really knows what's going on, and that's what ART is all about!

succubusbu-04.jpg

I first came to this conclusion watching SUCCUBUS (AKA NECRONOMICON), the 'Sensation of 67' a few years ago, who has a similarly amnesiac heroine, this one a nightclub performer who loses touch with reality and can't tell if she really is a sadistic killer or just plays one on stage:

Strange characters come up to her at the various soirees, seemingly thrilled to have found her at last, as if they've been looking and looking for Lorna since they last met. She merely stares at these interlopers blankly, not doubting what they say, but also not caring. In this context, the pick-up line, “Haven’t we met before?” takes on an extra creepy overtone. Anything that happened before the credits of the film--anything that we have not seen on-screen--does not exist for Lorna or for us. Thus relationships between Lorna and her lovers are always in flux. After her first performance, which is the first lengthy scene of the film, Lorna mysteriously appears at Mulligan’s (Jack Taylor) front door. He’s already in his bathrobe and when he answers, and seems to not remember who she is. As viewers, we can’t tell whether she’s just shown up uninvited like a stalker from the club or whether they in fact live together and are just playing a sexy game, or whether this is merely the result of language difficulties. Is he just hungover and doesn't trust his own memory? Is he used to inviting women to "come over later" and then forgetting who they even are? Or is he just, by default, unable to say no to a sure thing?




Whatever the real truth might be, the not-knowing works to both excite and disconcert. As the pair move playfully into the bedroom, we begin to think that maybe Lorna herself isn’t sure why she came there. Anyone who has ever tried to hide the fact that they don’t remember someone who knows them will relate. Is she taking advantage of his amnesia, or is he taking advantage of hers? Or is Franco's sporadically amateurish direction and the bad dubbing (2). In the cat and mouse game of who remembers what, it’s the being in the moment that counts, and Franco’s sense of the moment, and the erotic by extension, is very advanced—and perfectly suited to the world of jetsetting, booze-swilling, partner swapping glitterati of swingin’ ’67!

From there the film just keeps rolling back and forth through a haze of flashbacks, dreams and different countries. Lorna feels her way through events by the impulses coming from her unconscious, be they to seduce, kill or spout poetic monologues. She bears her amnesia close to the vest and in this way she is a perfect stand-in for the viewer, the "art film" viewer in particular, who may be forever wondering what's going on in the narrative themselves. We've all walked into the middle of a movie before, and had to instantly guess what was going on and who was what to who, people sshhh-ing us if we asked what was going on. So wither la Succubus? Is Franco a bad director with no vision, or is he a genius whose films improve on repeat viewings?” To paraphrase the stilted English dialog in the film: “What good would it do to freak out about amnesia when not knowing can be so pleasurable?”

(...) And of course, with the ancient architecture of Europe backing her up, Lorna’s amnesia stretches back far longer than her American counterparts: the amnesiacs in Memento and Mulholland Drive can only regress a little ways in their young, gaudy, pre-fab countrysides. Vertigo’s Carlotta Vance has to come from the pre-U.S., version of California, requiring long drives in Scottie’s car out to nationally preserved landmarks. Lorna’s European location allows for so much ancient architecture all around her that her amnesia can slide back through several centuries without much effort.





(More here: Time Travel for Amnesiacs: Succubus and the Moebius Love Strip)
 NOTES:
1. My Argentine ex-wife was given the Russian name Natacha, for example, and strangely enough, she looks a lot like the girl in the upper right of the top picture. 
2. Inevitably these 'international' productions are filmed MOS or with actors all speaking in their own languages, then for the dubbing the actors contribute to the language track of their native tongue, so Jack Taylor might contribute to the English track but not the French, while a French actress vice versa, etc.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Exit Visas from Paradise


One thing marvelous about the secret language of Hollywood's 'production code' is the way poetic/romantic dialogue invariably packs a subversive undercurrent - hip screenwriters compelled to bury layers of dirty innuendo beneath shallow graves of poesy. When it's done right, the code--such as it is--works well, as children and adults end up seeing two completely different movies.

Watching CASABLANCA (1941) for the millionth time last night, for example, I noticed deep currents of sexual bartering in the dialogue that just weren't there before. I realized the film is now--for me-- completely different than it was back when I taped it at 15 and watched it incessantly. Back then it was a tale of witty rapport between Bogie and Raines, some Nazi action, thrilling music, some draggy romance redeemed by Bogie's toughness. My old teenage-days film making partner Aland and I studied Bogie's every move - this was how we wanted to be when--if--we ever had dates of our own.

Now, countless dates and viewings later, I find the whole enterprise much richer, dirtier and more cynical. I'm presuming you've seen it, so forgive spoilers: Let's start off with Bogart's embittered reunion with Ilsa after she sneaks back to see him after her first visit to Rick's American with her husband, Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid), seeking the letters of transit (she leaves Victor asleep back at the hotel). She tells Rick how important it is she gets the letters of transit, how hard it's been for her since they parted, etc., to which he coldly mentions hearing similar sob stories 'before, with a tinny piano playing downstairs,' a remark so cruel it shoos her off .

It wasn't until this most recent viewing that it dawned on me: the 'tinny piano downstairs' is an allusion to a brothel, where the women hang out and drink cocktails with the potential clients in a downstairs lounge with a piano player, before luring a man upstairs for sex and maybe post-coital sob stories the women might tell--poor moms overdue on their rent, etc.--in order to maybe dig a larger amount of francs from the pockets of their homesick clientele. Bogart's indication that he's heard stories similar to Ilsa's with the tinny piano playing downstairs suddenly has sleazy meaning that no child would ever discern, at least I never did. Now, of course, brothels are far less commonplace. I've never been to one, but by now I've seen enough Godard movies to know they existed... in Paris... where Bogart lived before the Nazi invasion.

This ties in with the overall sleaziness on coded display in Casablanca itself, namely the exchange of sex for exit visas courtesy the womanizing Captain Renault (Claude Raines). He makes this offer to a young Bulgarian refugee, whose young dumb but handsome husband is trying to win the money needed at roulette in Rick's back room. Rick foils this plan by letting him win, to which Renault is only mildly disappointed (I'll be in tomorrow with a beautiful blonde, and it will make me very happy if she loses.")

I kind of gleaned this coded transaction as a youngster, but in this latest viewing, such transactions seemed the life blood of the film, and serve all the better to sketch out the sleazy rubric so popular in pre-code women's pictures -- the "How far would you go to save your husband?" theme, explored in films as old as TEN CENTS A DANCE (1931) and BLONDE VENUS (1931), right up to JEOPARDY (1953) and 1993's INDECENT PROPOSAL. The popularity of these pictures seemed to stem from the need to find scenarios where it became heroic, noble to cheat on your husband, thus allowing bored dreamer housewives to have their socially verboten kuchen and eat it too. If a woman would only cheat on her husband to save his life, well, then Hollywood scenarists would find hundreds of occasions, as if all of life was one compromising situation after another. Lazlo's issue is no different than Herbert Marshall's radiation poisoning in BLONDE VENUS, or Barry Sullivan's being stuck under a fallen beam as the tide rolls over him in JEOPARDY. Another even sleazier unspoken coded concept--rather unique to CASABLANCA--is the indirect conversation between Ilsa and Lazlo where she basically gets advance permission from her husband to sleep with Rick, if necessary, in order to secure their exit visas. Now that is seriously European of him! One can't help but be impressed by the gracious way he acknowledges the 'what went on in your bed while I was in a concentration camp stays in Vegas" credo.


It's to Henreid's credit as an actor that he makes this mcguffin-hungry anti-Nazi activist such an innocuous tool that he also 'deserves' to be cuckolded. I'd say that 'deserving' is linked, though not spelled out, via the scene where  Lazlo insists the orchestra play the French national anthem which interrupts the drunk singing of the German soldiers. First of all, it's rude, and naturally going to have bad repercussions for Rick's cafe, ending the party thanks to Major Strasse's (Conrad Veidt) outrage. In fact, Lazlo's presence contributes directly to Rick's loss of status as someone everybody knows and respects in Casablanca. Lazlo reduces him to a man without a bar--at least temporarily-- all for a few moments of French "we conquered these Arabs first, so fuck you" pride. Why is it noble for France to sing their anthem in Morocco? Aren't they just there first, but nonetheless conquerors? Better the French nationals should realize the humiliating sting of occupation and ask the locals, 'hey, what's the Moroccan national anthem, why don't we sing that?" Thus Rick pays the price for Victor's pride, so it's only fair Rick should steal Lazlo's woman. All this is of course spelled out only parametrically in soft dialogue about how 'for your sake, I let her pretend.'


Then of course there's the oft-discussed 'two-second light tower' dissolve, which I wrote about in relation to BABY DOLL (here) and which Maltby wrote about and Zizek analyzes. 

Another observation this go-round was how CASABLANCA strikes a particularly melancholy/happy note of a paradise where no one knows what they got until they lose it. We hear Casablanca is a rough place in the opening narration, but what we mainly see is a bar full of people having a good time, and not knowing how great they have it as they bitterly struggle to escape. The Casablanca of Rick's American is a pre-Edenic paradise, reminding me of that magical realist masterpiece of the 1980s, LOCAL HERO, in which Peter Riegert plays an oil man sent to buy out a remote Scottish seaside village in preparation for a massive oil refinery. it's citizens are anxious to sell out and get away while Riegert soon realizes they don't know how good they have it at this magical locale, and how sad it will be when it's all wiped away.


The town of Casablanca is, in Curtiz' film, depicted as just a great a place to be, a giant playground sandbox costume party. Everyone is dressed up as somebody else, and make no attempt to at an Arab accent as they wear an array of fezzes and costumes culled from all corners of the Warner costume dept. European ex-pat actors, legitimate refugees from the Nazis in the 1930s, such as, for example,  vehement anti-Nazi (he emigrated his native Germany in 1933) Conrad Veidt (read my appreciation of his work in A WOMAN'S FACE here) play Nazis. As a locale--both Hollywood and Morocco--are filled with refugees from all over the world, and the actual Arab locals of Morocco are almost nowhere to be found.


In short, it's a paradise of eternal play, disguise and joy, all enabled by what Todd McGowan (1) would call an absence of the imperative to enjoy, thus creating real enjoyment. Because Casablanca is supposed to be a hell hole, the people are free to enjoy without anxiety about the presence of the big other. Zizek compares this to life under communism where since the command to enjoy wasn't present, the people were free to enjoy as an act of covert rebellion discreetly sanctioned by the state as a kind of necessary evil. When you know just who and where the 'Big Other' is, you feel almost safer, more free to enjoy than you would in an enjoyment-centered society where a definitive Other is externally absent - so becomes internalized as the stifling imperative to enjoy.  Because everyone is supposed to be miserable and trying to get to Lisbon and freedom, there is no pressure to have fun and the vibe becomes one of existential despair, which in turn allows joy to form the way it only truly does: when one is staring mortality and loss directly in the face, like the brave blokes of the THE DAWN PATROL (1938).


Of course part of the appeal, the precious moment-in-time beauty of the cafe, stems from Rick's aloof cynicism, and also the cynicism and desperation of the refugees. A triple ex-pat, Rick fled to Spain to escape American persecution for some unnamed crime, fought for the anti-fascists and then fled to France, then escaped to North Africa right before the German invasion of Paris; now he's basically at the end of the rope, protected by international law and the help of Louie (Rains), the prefect of police. In short, he's like a kid who is free from worry, and yet, or because, is a virtual prisoner (the town itself has a curfew, as if it was populated by teenagers). The arrival of Ilsa signifies not just a chance to redo the past, but to leave the perpetual adolescence of this purgatory town and move forward--ala Stanley Cavell's comedies of remarriage.


On the other hand, why bother? At the famous plane climax I felt a sense of recognition, like I was Rick, and Ilsa and Victor were all my friends my same age who went off to Westchester to wed and raise children while I stayed in the East Village and romanced a beautiful rich, already married, Parisian businesswomen, and ended up with nothing, not even a Renault (2), yet still... for all that, content. In short, Rick's staying in Casablanca and heading off to join the Free French is a heroic rejection of adulthood's sticky reproductive flytrap - his bar sold, he follows the adage of Pavement's Stephen Malkmis: "Between here or there is better than either here or there!"

Finally recognizing 'this is the place and time' to shed his neutrality on the Nazi issue and cut the last remaining cord that ties him to th natural process of aging -- signified by the plane to Lisbon "and then America" -- Rick chooses his side once again. Let the balm of war--the only true cure for lovesickness--begin! Rick is staying put in the only place where paradise may truly endure, the deepest womb of hell, where people go to escape their past, the Free French Foreign Legion... like Geoffrey in UNDER THE VOLCANO, it's his natural habitat - "and that makes Ricky a citizen of the world!"

1) McGowan's Lacan and the Emerging Society of Enjoyment informs this essay and comes highly recommended. 
2) She did buy me a very nice video projector for Xmas one year

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The love every parent fears: YOUTH IN REVOLT (2009), ENDLESS LOVE (1980)


Being blown away by SCOTT PILGRIM I had to check out YOUTH IN REVOLT which promised to fully answer the question: can Michael Cera play anything other than his squirmy ectomorphic sexually-frustrated pansexual 'self'? PILGRIM seemed to indicate yes, but REVOLT answers uh... non.

Cera's essentially playing a dual character: his Nick Twisp (the usual shy Cera) and his 'dangerous' alterego--Francois Dillinger--who is clearly borne of obsessive desire for a sweet neighbor girl whose sexual boldness blows the normal Twisp clear into oblivion. Wearing a pencil-thin mustache with white slacks and an ever-present cigarette (does he ever inhale?), Francois is Cera's chance to cowboy up but he's still talking barely above a whisper. Dillinger never really materializes as a separate 'ballsy' character, just basically a pyromaniac with some foul-mouthed extra confidence, and proves, PILGRIM aside, Cera is still the Stu Erwin of his generation, the Eddie Bracken with less small-town corn and more art film savvy.

Why Cera? The Cera-phenom didn't start with JUNO or SUPERBAD --it began with ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, but in that series he was a confused hormonal kid trying get out from under the avalanche of contradictory instruction from his micro-managing father. JUNO and SUPERBAD made it A-OK for Cera's brand of high-voiced stream of consciousness to enter the realm of the horny nerd, and emboldened the horny nerd in the process to have interests beyond peering at dirty magazines. Now in between all the dick jokes  they can discuss Welles, Bresson, Fellini, Argento, Wood -- they even know that Ozu directed TOKYO STORY, not Mizoguchi. Tres intellique!

While REVOLT's pranks are less dorky and more property-damaging than the typical virginity-losing teen sex comedy's, touching that vein of troubled boarding school loss as it does, the film's source template emerges (as TAXI DRIVER was the template for Jody Hill's underappreciated OBSERVE AND REPORT) as nothing other than Bertolucci's ENDLESS LOVE (1981), a drama of tortured love and torched property. It was similarly about a lovestruck arsonist-pursuing his forbidden rich girl objet petit a, the world's obsession of the moment, Brooke Shields.


In the late 1970s, Shields launched the popularity of skin-tight 'designer' jeans with a campaign for Calvin Klein ("Nothing comes between me and my Calivns").  And she was 14, which is hard to believe in this day and age when Hannah Montana can be blasted to hell for showing her shoulder on a magazine cover. Shields won even more moral outrage playing a child prostitute in PRETTY BABY (1978, age 13) and going topless at age 15 in THE BLUE LAGOON (she had to testify a body double was used due to child pornography accusations), then in ENDLESS LOVE at 16, playing a sexually budding debutante in Franco Zeffirelli's worst film and biggest box office success.


I never really understood Shields' flash of appeal, being just 14 myself and more into older women like Cheryl Tiegs, Jaclyn Smith, and Bo Derek, but I remember the film's avalanche of hype: sexual movie posters and commercials and playground word-of-mouth, and so-- apparently--does REVOLT's director Miguel Arteta (THE GOOD GIRL, CHUCK AND BUCK) who was Brooke's age when ENDLESS LOVE came out and thus wouldn't have been allowed to see it without legal guardian (I was even younger). But bad as Zeffirelli's film may be, at least it has the courage of its sickly softcore convictions, being as much about Shields' nymphet stardom and Zeffirelli's desire to recreate the box office success of his 1968 counterculture-approved ROMEO AND JULIET. Straddling the difference between BREATHLESS's insouciance, the indie quirk-studded suburban character ensemble comedy, and ENDLESS LOVE's Franco Zeffirelli mania (there's some good scenes with Justin Long as a Zen-shroomer older brother), YOUTH IN REVOLT ends up being drawn and quartered in its saddle.

No offense to true romance, but as I've said before, John Cusak standing outside your window in the dead of night blasting Peter Gabriel from a boombox over his head is called stalking. Every time a girl says that scene (from SAY ANYTHING) is romantic, another girl pays the price as some obsessive maniac takes her rejection as a challenge to keep pursuing, burning down buildings, lacing drinks, blinding horses, breaking into dorms, killing rivals, and even taking telescopic pictures while listening to a "la-la-la-la" - the Ennio Morricone soundtrack (L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo).  Stand skeeved by their methodology if you're me, but guys learn fast, and so "In Your Eyes" has become the song every parent fears. And then of course there's the rich history of society helping abused women get clear of their abuser men, only to watch in horror as the women wind up going back to them anyway, making society feel like fools.

In movies, at least, the stalker attitude is a sign of a romantic ideal where a million true loves await your ceaseless internet trawling, and you can't quite pick one, so you go for the one you can't have... better to stalk and lose continually then win once and be expected to stay outside of the neighbor's bushes, where it's safe dark.

REVOLT's reptilian adhesion to formality and mammalian desire for characters and change is akin to yesterday's Roger Corman films, studded with interesting characters but robbed of Corman's streak of true, genuine revolution. Random violence in the service of love is not true love, but obsession. It's like that itch on your back and your lover scratches it and it feels good for less than a fraction of a second before the itch moves on. It was never about the itch; the itch was where your incompleteness meant to hide and keep you shopping, drinking, hungering, writing lots of tortured poetry and sighing over LA BOUT DE SOUFFLE, CRAZY LOVE, TRUE ROMANCE, and the song: "My.... endless... love."

The girl of REVOLT, Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday) understands this and 'creates' the drama version of the 'angry bed' to test her wannabe Lancelot, but she's never deluded into believing the tests are anything more than mere amusement-in-the-moment. The tragedy is that in the end the film itself believes the delusions created by her need for drama--as evinced in the final thought of our unreliable narrator: "After all that, Nick Twisp was enough." One is tempted to shout back at the screen: "No, he wasn't!" Cera's character is not even 'present' - how can any girl be expected to love a vertical plane of self-conscious neediness and ectomorphic myopia deluded into thinking it's a 'person'? And the same goes for Cera's Francois Dillinger, who turns out to be little more than a gimmick, though Cera's dirty talk has its moments, such as "I want to wrap your legs around my head and wear you like the crown that you are." Nice work. There is after all a difference between the well-laid bluntness of Serge Gainsbourg and the bitter smuttiness of the perennial virgin. For all the bravado, Francois can only skim the edges of the former.


The oxymoronic impression YOUTH gives off, of 'trying' to be effortless, manifests right off the bat in the dopey claymation credits sequence, which seems to beg the audience to see this as JUNO II.  But at least Diablo had the courage to get out there and do the things she writes about, to get the grody details right. Aside from a later shroom-lucination or two, the animation is too sophomoric and obvious. Effort could have been put into subtle changes like making the walls breathe ala THE BLACK SWAN, but it's too busy making dumb sex comedy jokes.  It's why all the best artists--like Portman and Aronofsky--are fearless self-examiners, exorcising their demons in public, screaming and howling and trashing hotel rooms, all to keep the crap of self-delusion and obsessive denial of death from fogging up their windshield and making it impossible to see their work from any kind of artistic vantage point.  If you look at two other 'portrait of an evil doppelganger as a young artist' films, THE BLACK SWAN and FIGHT CLUB, the pedestrian safehood of REVOLT--even with shrooms and arson--becomes clear.


Twisp's epiphany that it was "him" all along misses the whole point: magic bullet clinginess is not true love. Doing crazy things for love is fine if you bear in mind that love earned that way isn't going to last more than a night. Concentrate and you can feel an undying soul connection to anything -- a cat or a teddy bear even-- and then it's *Poof!* c'est finis. The moment ends, your attention focuses back on the TV and the cat skulks off into the other room, or Cera gets out of jail and finds none of the expected sparks and crashing trains when he finally shacks up uncontested with Sheeni. Rather than realize the error of his unrealistic expectations, Twisp will undoubtedly suspect Sheeni's sleeping with someone else and that's why he's not "happily ever after." If there was one lesson he could have gleaned from reading Cahiers du Cinema or listening to Serge, that was it. Twisp gleaned it not! Coupez spot publicitaire!



The guys in the above video exemplify here that you can be scrawny and white and nebbishy and still kick every ass in the room. Francois if you're going to wear mirror shades and a silly mustache, take a lesson from "The Chief!"

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Let England Take: Pregnant Portman Vs. THE KING'S SPEECH (2010)


There will always be an England, taking... our Oscars. The U.S.A's imperialist academy voters of a certain age with their ensconced sense of drawing room pomp get all weak in the knees at the thought of having tea with the wife of King George VIII, especially if she's embodied by saucy Helena Bonham Carter, and said king's played by dear old Collin Firth. If the film's lit artsy (lit like a Romantic period painting) and crafty (stripped down so every word of dialogue is a fractal composite of the whole), in English (upper crusted accents), and has a happy ending. I've seen them, with their jewels and haughty laughs, and I know what they like! 


I'm rooting for the BLACK SWAN, the defiant Mozart that unnerves the Academy's Salieri-voting block, SWAN is divisive by the very nature of its 'Yellow Wallpaper' feminist-hall-of-mirrors Icarus-ian iconography... it dares to melt the mythic archetypal into the personal and meta until its soul bleeds into its body like Ahab. It's basically an admonishment to the elderly artist, and old is what everyone who votes in the Academy is, or will inevitably be (dead stars get no vote). Yesterday's royalty, Winona Ryder lurks like the Phantom of the Opera in the shadowed wings of SWAN, a film that chooses death, drugs and hot mess madness over respectability; the Academy needless to picked the latter. KING trumped SWAN for me in just one way: Geoffrey Rush as the unorthodox teacher who must cut past "Bertie's" repression-- part of a long, illustrious line of Oscar-snatching, unorthodox teachers who must cut through repression--social and personal--stretching back through Robin Williams in THE DEAD POET'S SOCIETY.  BLACK SWAN's unorthodox teacher--Vincent Cassel-- pushing the star past repression is much younger and cinematically aerodynamic than Rush, and thus seems more like the son of a ballet master than the thing itself. He does a great job, but Rush does a masterful one. 


Rush's teacher feels lived-in, uniquely British in his blend of fiery eccentric lordliness and deeply humble focus. Firth was great too, making us feel every attempt at speaking as a truly heroic force of strength and English will, but if you compare his crumbling speech student to Portman's banshee ballet breakdown it's like comparing life and death, salt and salt-free.  THE KING'S SPEECH is so A+ in every nook and cranny of its white elephant hide it defies description. But oh for a termite.


 SWAN might die at Oscar time because its lack of a clear reality is interpreted, felt, lived, in a way that makes the bourgeoisie nervous: they don't like high art to bite them in their feeding hand. In locating the crux of Tchaikovsky's music and the myth it embodies within the personal life of a repressed ballet star, Aronofsky peels back the yellow wallpaper between texts and makes the myth personal -- it swallows you whole, sucks you down like the Pequod. The viewer of THE KING'S SPEECH is not implicated the way he or she is in SWAN. In SWAN, the metatextual chain of interpretation and performance (i.e. the fact that this is Natlie Portman's break-out picture as a creased, non-gamin actress, and Winona's presence is the grim future for non-gamins), lunges for the jugular and bitch slaps the viewer with their own mortality.  KING'S just causes us minor bumpy traffic jam stress and relief as all the antsy waits as upper crust fortifications are breached and every coherent sentence is like a dream, but the whole effect becomes as calculated as another Geoffrey Rush picture, QUILLS. The movie becomes like a therapist presenting the viewer with ink blot puzzles to solve, with no other solution but the correct one possible. SWAN is more like the therapist that burns down their own office and then makes out with you in their car, then reads you your DSM-IV in bed. 


That said BLACK SWAN has Oscar plusses: stodgy art, tight binding of young girl's feet, Svengali-esque puppeteers and wounded doe Trilbies high on ecstasy; it also has a big Oscar minus: Natalie Portman's character is rude to--and directly disobeys--her long-suffering Mrs. Bates-ish stage mother (Barbara Hershey) and isn't directly punished for it! As the academy is chock full of hard-working stage mothers, such disobedience is usually Oscar death. The scandal of Mila Kunis not being nominated indicates a secret law Nathan R pointed out in in a post I can't find at the moment: giving oral sex to Natalie Portman in SWAN ensured Kunis' lack of a nomination and that 'tis better to receive than give in olde Hollywood, and new as well. 


Due to higher education being available based on merit and interest as opposed to wealth, more of the working class in socialized countries like GB seem to possess a genuine interest in 'high art' than here in the States, where tenured professors, teacher's unions and old women in expensive jewelry make 'classical' and 'boring' inextricably entwined. The journey from US government education board lesson planning (they should all have to read Anna Karinina!) to hungover, underpaid educator ("pay attention! this woman was Russian!") to ADD sugar-addict child mind twisting in and out of wooden desk/chair torture combo unit, ensures a kind of tedious base-line conformity that discourages passionate interest. In London, if a man has no love for literature, he's allowed to stay in shop class fixing engines... all his life, on a nice stipend. So it is that a working class taxi driver may love Bartok and Handel, and a prince may jam to the Clash without irony. Since they 'know their place' neither can be accused of slumming or class-climbing as they would here, thus art and education are free to fly and be living and vital. 


By this of course I mean--and again no offense meant to the films or filmmakers--the unquestioned embrace of all things British by our bourgeoisie is not the fault of these highly trained artisans and keepers of the classical flame, but just that the nature of grants means they mustn't travel too far, darlings. And if there is some Shakespeare, or something legitimately powerful and poetic, it has to be watered down and steamed ala SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (above) or welded to a single cheering moment, like a speech, a stage show (TOPSY TURVEY) or sports event (CHARIOTS OF FIRE - below) in order to stop it from spilling out into the streets and starting a riot.


The average English person understands this issue of tish-toshy, royalty-suck-up-to glimmer glammer, even more than we do, this tendency of critics to fall on their knees as soon as Collin Firth picks up an expensive period pen, or Helena Bonham Carter emerges, high heels and white gloves first, from a period Bentley pulled up before a flower-and-footman-bestrewn mansion. They're a droll bunch the Brits, keenly aware of their country's faults and foibles through their hitherto discussed vibrant relation to the arts. Americans have their 'Super Bowl,' Britain has its theater, and films like THE RULING CLASS and TV shows like THE AVENGERS. which come chock full of wry self-deprecating Britishness. America isn't quite ready for that level of self-satire. The only film that maybe comes close is Richard Kelly's unappreciated SOUTHLAND TALES, and our collective lack of arts education is, and gentlemen I say this without hesitation, the reason for us not loving it.


Still - I don't really see anything new or alive or chance-taking, nothing fresh, in the KING'S SPEECH compared to the wacky attempt to fuse 800 levels of intertextual operatics into 90 minutes of the BLACK SWAN's tightening gyre. Yet by any standard you care to name, THE KING'S SPEECH is stunning - even the music manages to sidestep the kind of corny orchestral bombast someone like John "Excuse me while I rip Les Baxter" Williams would have brought to it. The photography of all the royal landmark interiors is breathtakingly romanticist. The acting jaw-dropping in its perfection; the script one of those perfect little traps wherein everything from the speech therapist's pedantic audition to play Richard III in an amateur theater troupe, to the threat of Nazism (seen by the King as a kind of proletariat revolutionary threat, a class war), to the meteoric all-pervasiveness of the wireless; to Prince Albert's abdication to run off with a married woman; to the leavening of true distance between royalty and commoners, all congeals like a completed puzzle that operates on every textual level there is, all into one halting final speech/broadcast that involves two middle-aged men, alone together, in a room, with a sheets hung from the ceiling, and there's nothing gay about it.


 In the end it proves that little has changed since the nouveau riche Texas oil wives were lugging home British butlers and kissing up to European nobility in the early 20s, while Charlie Ruggles and W.C. Fields looked on aghast before slinking to the bar. There's a still a contingent of these 'cultured' elite, most of them of Oscar voting-age, for whom soft-spoken women who know their place, and men who'd rather die than cut loose on camera aren't even required to prove themselves...  America just hands over its most precious award show trinkets like they've forgotten all about the 'art' of genuine revolution, you know, like the war?  That we won? From them?


POST NOTE: As so often happens, my crush on Natalie Portman is gone now that she's all proudly pregnant. Knocked up by a commoner--a dance instructor, no less---and showing off her budding oven like it's by Jean Paul Gautier, that's doing the whole 'king becoming friends with his commoner speech therapist' thing one worse -- as painful to see for me as my own creeping gray hairedness. I'll admit for me it's that old unsnaswered question: Why? Why was I born just to have to go to school and brussel sprouts? Is that all there is... to a circus? Then let's keep / dancing-- but with Millipedes?

 So for me, seeing Portman knocked up is like what seeing Justin Bieber with beer bloat, dilated pupils, and mussed hair in a future DUI mugshot will be for legions of reticently aging Bieber fans now freshly married with children of their own. Can't we keep our icons in some pressurized chamber that turns counter to the earth's rotation so they never age, or menstruate? Or worse, meet some some rare straight French dance instructor and leave us all alone to our dreadful mortal thoughts?


IN OTHER BRITISH NEWS: PJ Harvey's new album is out, LET ENGLAND SHAKE. And it's awesome, and all about England.  PJ Harvey is one of those eternally gutsy artist with the cajones to not only address her nation's slaughtering ways, but to dab herself in the blood like its stage make-up in a Bertolt Brecht pageant number. And Polly Jean's using her "White Chalk" falsetto still, making those of us who remember the awesome, deep, full-bodied sexuality with which she once sang lines like "Aaaaa Aaaah Eee /and you believe me!" Still it's pretty awesome and I spent the walk over here listening to it and imagining political cartoons comparing the States' fucked-up healthcare and education systems with England's far more advanced socialist network. America's fur-wrapped Academy voters may still be dreaming of tea with the queen and voting accordingly, but at least they got one thing right: England Ruled. Now we're ruled by someone called Mark Zuckerberg. THE SOCIAL NETWORK's theme will, I think, be lost on the Academy, who regard the internet as something devoutly to be feared, up there with all the other things that might symbolize handing over the keys to the Twilight generation.


Of course the age war is nothing new for Academy Award choices, and the British mix of conqueror and civilization, reserve and madness, inbreeding, tea, crumpets, assault and apology, Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper, jolly good quips and oppression is everything that 'youth' is not. THE KING'S SPEECH is adult... as adult as dull lectures, as decaffeinated tea, as not the sudden glorious death of Icarus but the slow, rotting flesh decay of the elderly statesman.


In that movie THE RULING CLASS for example, Peter O'Toole (above) is cured of of his Christ complex which had him loving all creatures and thinking himself God--and transformed into a draconian Jack the Ripper-type conservative, advocating the return of public flogging in the House of Lords -- in other words, he grows 'English' old boy, like Clockwork Alex in verso. Our Oscar voter may not have enough therapy under their belts to realize it, and it's too late because no one in the Ameristocracy attended Marxism 101 in college, just got automatic A's thanks to their dad's donation. Then again, maybe it's someone else that rigs the world... just what in the world is a Rothschild Zionist and who do I have to sacrifice to become one?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Great Women of Horror: An Acidemic Top Ten

So many of the top horror film bloggers are women it's not even fair to just say 'it's your month, baby.' Because they rule! You got Tenebrous Kate, Stacie Ponder of Final Girl, the original as far as I'm concerned (she was my introduction to the world of blogging back in 2006), Jinx from Totally Jinxed, and the immortal Day of the Woman's BJ-C.  and others... but hey, Acidemic is always down to celebrate badass horror chicks! The below list doesn't include the more obvious choices I've already covered, such as Jill Banner and Beverly Washburn in SPIDER BABY (here) and Natasha Henstridge in SPECIES (read my big SPECIES / GHOSTS OF MARS piece here) or THE RING (here):

Nastassja Kinski in
CAT PEOPLE
1982
A movie for the sweaty palmed thrill of waiting to meet what may be a new lover: the danger--heady and intoxicating--taking over and trumping all other states in the electoral college of the Electric Self. The sense of incredible longing coupled to intense anxiety about the hazards involved is one most teenagers get to know all too well, and I was worse than most, unaware that my relentless longing was not sexy to behold... How great then, a movie that champions sexual stasis? Nastassja Kinski is afraid to surrender because she knows she'll turn into a panther if she gets too excited, and won't turn back again until she kills someone. The touchingly open ending hints at the dawn of an inter-species love affair with the mix of sacral chakra-moving low synth beds and "See these eyes so blue / I could stare for a thousand years" from Bowie all letter perfect. I hummed that Bowie song all the way through the rest of high school. You can argue the original is better, but why bother? I've seen them both dozens of times and Kinski is so perfectly cast I swoon just thinking about it. Look at her ,atop, like the love child of Ingrid Bergman and a leopard, which is nearly true. Meanwhile Annette O'Toole is her perfect foil --all-American, busty, good with animals, and sexually available as all hell to John Heard, who may not be perfect but is better in every way than dopey Kent Smith in the original.

2. Alison Hayes / Dorothy Neumann
in THE UNDEAD
1957
My favorite Corman movie, I love THE UNDEAD's sheer ballsy lunacy, Charles B. Griffith's and Marc Hana's droll script, and Corman's dream poetry econo-direction. The whole film feels like it was shot in sequence over one long night in a single empty soundstage full of black toxic mist (and it was!). Pamela Duncan is hypnotized to travel through the sea of time to her past lives, but she ends up derailing the scheme of things when she's able to whisper advice to her about-to-be-beheaded for witchcraft Middle Ages incarnation. Her prior self escapes the axe, and while her loyal suitor and the palace guards give chase, the hypnotist joins her in the past to try and correct the matter. I saw this when very young on TV and the scene were Duncan seeks shelter at the witch's house is to me the eternally definitive Halloween moment, Neumann the definitive witch (see photo top of post). She's a good witch, despite her crooked nose (putting to rest the libelous claim of Glenda in OZ that "only bad witches are ugly"), and I love the casual way she asks the stranger at her door "Are you from this era or from a time yet to be?" as if hypnotists from the future were not uncommon.  Alison Hayes is awesome as the va-va-Voom-level hot 'real bad' witch with eyes on Pamela's man. And the devil shows up! Put this on real DVD... now!!!

3. Susan Cabot in
THE WASP WOMAN
1959
I wrote this review for Muze back in 2001 when I was covering the entire Corman canon and as a result fell madly in love with his early muse, Susan Cabot. WASP was her tour de force, but she was also featured in Corman's MACHINE GUN KELLY, VIKING WOMEN AND THE SEA SERPENT, SORORITY GIRL and CARNIVAL ROCK. She's good in every one, but nowhere is she is awesome as when she's half-wasp: 
...the first feminist horror film. Susan Cabot stars as aging cosmetics mogul Janice Starlin, who injects herself with an experimental wasp enzyme in order to restore her fading youth and save her company from going broke. Eccentric scientist Dr. Zinthrop (Michael Mark) first tries the serum on cats, but when they later sprout wings and stingers, he realizes the formula might not be market ready. Unfortunately, he winds up in a coma before he's able to warn Starlin of the ghastly side effects, and before long she's buzzing around the building at night, attacking and devouring her enemies. What's admirably feminist about the film is how Starlin is portrayed as intelligent, powerful, and sympathetic while her male underlings are condescending buffoons who first dismiss her serum as mere wishful vanity and later find themselves smitten by her newly restored beauty (and later bitten by her wasp alter ego). Barboura Morris plays Starlin's worried secretary, and Bruno Ve Sota is an unlucky night watchman. Cabot is splendid in the title role, reverse-aging beautifully." (read rest here )
 
4. Lilyan Tashman in
MURDER BY THE CLOCK
1931
I'll defer to Amy Jeanne's sublime and trenchant vintage fashion blog, It'll Take the Snap out of your Garter, where I found the above picture:
Murder By The Clock (1931) is one of the best movies I've seen in a long time. It was fantastically creepy in every way possible. Irving Pichel (a Harvard Graduate, no less!) plays a disturbingly deranged young man who gets 3 murders pinned on him. His mother refuses to leave him the family fortune and instead leaves it to her nephew, whose wife is the wonderful Lilyan Tashman! Lilyan was a complete evil BITCH in this movie and I loved every minute of it. She masterminds three murders including her husband and her lover. She also flirts shamelessly with the detective on the case and the deranged Irving.

Anna May Wong in
THE DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON
1931
Like Cabot in THE WASP WOMAN, Wong is delectably beautiful and actoriciously tormented as the late Fu Manchu's daughter. Torn between loyalty to her murderous father's wish for vengeance, and her own wish to just be fabulous dancer at posh clubs, her fate is pre-ordained. Fah Lo Suee would later be  hit out of the park by Myrna Loy in MGM's THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (1933). DAUGHTER is a much cheaper, lower key take on the character. But since I've already written about my love for Loy's sadistic rendition, I thought I'd cover the seductive and sensational Wong.  Naturally despite her lack of experience, she takes to murder and torture as it's in her blood, and this includes acid in the face! Meanwhile it's delightful to watch some dumb, lovestruck Asian detective bend every rule on her behalf and ultimately get nowhere, conjuring complex racism.

Kate Jackson in
SATAN'S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS
1973
Hey, whatever man. We all have our weaknesses, things we love because they hit a certain nostalgic longing, like our first tele-crush. For me, it's the booksmart sexy of Kate Jackson, and no film was as out of reach than SATAN'S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS, which was always on TV way past my bedtime, in late-night reruns, before VCRs existed, so I could just read the blurb in TV Guide and feel my prepubescent mystique-ridden polymorphous jouissance entwine inwards. What a title! It's cut from the same Aaron Spelling mold as Charlie's Angels: dry weed patch and dirt bike trail L.A. exteriors, makeup trailers doubling as mansions, flat lighting, glistening teeth, 70's encounter group fad mentality, terrible taffeta scarfs and delectable hip-hugger jeans. I would not change it.

Valerie Leon in
BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB
1971
The first time I saw this I fell madly in love with Valerie Leon. It also helped that I'd just read Bram Stoker's novella--The Jewel of the Seven Stars--right before seeing this, not knowing it was actually based on said novella until about half-way through, and since the story is all deja vu and murderous spirits embodying beautiful women rising from the ashes to kill those who dared desecrate her tomb, et al, it was a perfect meta moment for me. It helps the rough stretches that Leon's mod fashion choices are spot-on during her killing sprees--I'm a sucker for the pale skin, black hair, black velvet choker look--and she underplays recklessly in a double role. Just look at that awesomely haughty ambivalence in her eyes above!

Vanessa Howard is
GIRLY
1970
Rocking the scoiopathic jailbait look, Vanessa Howard captures the spirit of wicked evil, her eyes alight in unholy mischief, in this horror comedy. And her legs are lovely, and always on display in mod skirts, including a beech-skin cowboy costume. Her straight blonde hair demarks a princess and her simmering red schoolgirl uniform is like a pomegranate-squeezed hallucination against the perennial dim fog of the green, brown, and all-grey English countryside.  She bites into her character with such a cunning glee that you want to lick the juice off her chin...." (more here)

Ingrd Pitt in
THE VAMPIRE LOVERS
1970
The year 1970 was a very good year for horror movie women in England as it was a time of relaxed censorship standards but not yet just softcore Maxim-style boredom. In other words, there was still the sizzle, and some of steak too, with a high level of proper adhesion to narrative and atmosphere in addition to the sapphic nudity.

Pitt is beautiful and awesomely evil, but what's the deal with the inevitable cutaways to the pimp in the tall black hat waiting off in the distance on his horsey? I can't help but feel there was this knee-jerk need to stick these shots in so it seems Pitt's Carmilla isn't following her own drummer but needs a man to guide her on her evil missions even if from afar. That's crap, brothers! But luckily he never really intrudes, so I've come to think of him as a Crypt Keeper or Whistler / Hitchhiker-type narrator, in order to keep my inner militant feminist at ease.

Mabel Karr and Estella Blaine  in
DIABOLICAL DR. Z
1966
One is the daughter of a mad scientist, the other her robotic killer henchmen. When dad dies after receiving a dissing at the medical conference for his wild theories about turning criminals into robots, daughter Karr goes on a spree of revenge. I won't go into the nasty things she does to fake her own death, but let's just say she's not f---ing around. Later she spies a hot girl (Blaine) in a spider bodysuit doing a web-dance seduction of a mannequin and mind-melds her into being her poison fingernailed sex assassin.  In other words, yes, it's typical Jess Franco 'storyline' but clearly one of the 'master's' most focused and inventive works. There's even a few actual tracking shots as opposed to his usual lazy zooms! And both women are luscious and stone cold creepy at the same time. As Michael Weldon would say: Essential viewing.