Friday, April 29, 2011

B is for BURN, WITCH, BURN (1962)


Buried unceremoniously in amidst the 'forgotten' films avail. for streaming on Netflix is a film you must see: BURN, WITCH, BURN (1962), an AIP film from the UK, based on Fritz Lieber's perennial ghost tale, "The Conjure Wife." There was a vastly inferior adaption in the 1940s called WEIRD WOMAN, part of a B-list series of films based on the popular Inner Sanctum radio show. And there was this, which is awesome. But which of the two is available on R1 DVD? Right you are, but that's all moot now, thanks to the 'flixstream. Known in the UK as NIGHT OF THE EAGLE, it turns out BURN, WITCH, BURN is the best-kept secret in early 1960's black-and-white British horror. 


What makes this film work is its moody black and white photography and AIP talent roster, including Corman Poe screenwriters Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson, who always instill 'classic' material with an edge of modern wit that does nothing to dispel the unease and terror. It's directed by Sidney Hayers, a TV director who's worked on The Avengers, and Baywatch, among others, but hey - it's all about the script and the actors, and these are top flight, even if there's nary a familiar face in the bunch: Janet Blair is the wife, Peter Wyngarde the brooding Rod Taylor-ish lead, Margeret Johnson the limping rival; Judith Stott an amazing and odd face as the charmed co-ed.

I've been shy about this film since I was afraid half of the running time would be spent with the husband condescendingly lecturing and belittling his wife about her black magic habits. He does, but she fights back with scathing wit and makes her conversion to logic something that's a result of her own self-doubt, rather than his stern paternal berating. Part and parcel to this left brain belittling the right thing is the whole code-enforced demoting of women from sexy independent thinkers to smiling slave drone Stepford wives. I love women! I think they're great / they're a solace to a world in a terrible state. What a nightmare to have no women in the world (Lou Reed). Or as B,W,B shows, it's a nightmare either way, but beautiful (Bing Crosby).


Filmed in black and white, BURN has the arty photography of the British countryside, rocky beaches, and cloudy English skies of the British new wave, and stands up against the cream of Hollywood's post-Lewton / Tourneur ambiguous shadowy horrors like THE HAUNTING, as per this delicious review from Unkle Lancifer on Kindertrauma:

Black and white film adds something unique to the movie viewing experience overall but it adds something super unique to horror films and something super special gonzo incredible unique to the supernatural horror film. How can anyone wonder if witchcraft exists? Black and white film IS witchcraft! You just can’t get this effect with color film (unless your name happens to be MARIO BAVA.)
Indeed. It is hard to think of who other than Bava could ever get this chilled in color, and harder to think who other than Lewton could sneak so much genuinely intelligent female characters into a black and white horror film The evil witch has great lines, mocking our hero's 'desperate stretching of logic' to continually deny that which he knows to be true. Meanwhile a whole litany of superstition rolls by: charms, spells and obscene phone calls, all topped off by some wild ass NIGHT OF THE DEMON-style monsterizing. So while the world knows to bow for the stealth-intellect and shadow-shelved soul of the Lewton box and the CURSE OF THE DEMON and HORROR HOTEL DVDs, no one, at least here in the states, knows that BURN, WITCH, BURN deserves not only bowing, but scraping, and more scraping, until the very celluloid below your finger nails is engulfed in black and white flame.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Screw any Man under 30: ARIZONA DREAM (1993, dir. Emir Kusturica)

"Why must you screw any man under 30?"
"Because it's normal... in Papua New Guinea!"

The above lines of dialogue give you some insight into the hysterical weirdness of Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica's first English language film, ARIZONA DREAM (1993). Don't let it get confused with other ARIZONA movies, or quirky ensemble films too numerous to name (BENNY AND JOON springs to mind, but I've never seen it). Yes, it's got a post-structuralist's fascination with desert roadside attractions, and yes it's got a whimsical voiceover (from Depp) and whimsy involving Eskimos, a hypnotist sled dog; a fish with two eyes on the same side of his face, a balloon; an airplane propeller mounted to the chandelier for a ceiling fan; Depp acting like a chicken "buck buck buckcock!"; fish swimming through the sky whenever someone dies; ambulances going up to the moon; pet turtles at the dinner table, but none of it done in a corny 'faux-centric" way like a Sundance workshop "about family... about hope"  nor is it done in an 'aren't common folk delightful?' Capra style. Instead this has enough 'hysterics' to land it amongst films like Zulawski's 1985  L'AMOR BRAQUE (my piece here) or 80's Godard like DETECTIVE and CODE NAME: CARMEN. In short, it's genuinely nuts, not nuts-lite.


The story unfolds with nature conservationist Depp being lured by brother Vince Gallo out to Arizona to attend his uncle's wedding. Jerry Lewis is the uncle, a car dealer with a thing for pink Cadillacs. He's marrying--wait for it--noted supermodel Paulina Porizkova! So far so good. Yet that whole set-up is dropped once Lili Taylor as a rich heiress and Faye Dunaway as her hot mess stepmom show up at the dealership and Depp and Gallo start falling all over themselves like the Marx Brothers over Thelma Todd. Depp quickly moves in to the ladies' remote Arizona mansion, to shag Dunaway and help her realize her dream of building a fantasmastical flying machine. Kudos to any film where Faye Dunaway out crazies Jerry Lewis (I generally cringe watching Lewis' schtick, but he's restrained and excellent here).


Fans of Vincent Gallo should note there's early signs of his BROWN BUNNY austerity, when he performs the crop dusting scene from Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST at a talent show. Later during a pivotal scene of bedroom hopping upstairs, Gallo is down on the couch, watching GODFATHER II and reciting the whole Fredo bit "Don't you think I'm smaht?!" These scenes, immortal as they come, seems to be metaphors for middle America to the European cinephile mind, a place of endless expanse and emotional voidness, where space, time, and family cease to have any meaning, and we find ourselves hiding and dodging and hiding like a scarecrow at an airport. Gallo also quotes the Cowardly Lion ("I didn't bite hm!") and dances around when things get weird, which they do.


Lili Taylor has perhaps never looked sexier or seemed more relaxed, as the stepdaughter, even as she commits bungee jumping pseudo-suicide, and dreams of coming back as a turtle, but--like Lewis--she lets Dunaway--sexy cougar-style in country frock, pale denim jacket and beauty contest hair-- out-crazy her. The cast clearly has affection for each other and the chops to improv and ham it up without moving out of character or grandstanding. Thanks to his endless Tim Burton movies, Depp's quirkiness isn't quite as fresh as it may have been back in 1993, but Kusturica is no Burton, and the film never loses its giddy, mystical edge. Actors tend to talk a lot about the friends and collaborative energy they experienced on the set of whatever film they're plugging, but here none of that friendly collaboration feels like it needs to be mentioned. It's there, for real, so there's no need to talk about it. Let the Iggy Pop songs on the soundtrack (written by Kusturica for the film) tell what needs telling, and leave it at that.


After this, Kusturica would make his definitive politico-black comedy UNDERGROUND (1995) and you can see some of the ideas in that later film born in DREAM's scattered, hypertextual framework. Long unavailable on DVD or VHS, it's a delight to find ARIZONA DREAM on Netflix streaming! Fans of acid cinema are obliged to, if not plunge, at least wade tentatively in... before it vanishes into the fishnet ether from which it came.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Morphine, Cappucine, and Dino De: FRAULEIN DOKTOR (1968)


Currently available only on Netflix streaming is this hitherto unbeknownst to me big budget, ponderous, confusingly edited, reasonably engrossing, mildly titillating melodrama from Dino De Laurentiis,  FRAULEIN DOKTOR (1968). Also known as FRAULEIN DOCTOR (on Netflix), it's the story of a German morphine-addict bisexual super spy, and is clearly structured along a DR. ZHIVAGO (1965) template, which is to say, it has big elaborate international WW1/Russian Revolution-era sweep; Jarre-ish orchestral soundtrack (by Ennio!), a superfluously detailed train journey; a big crowd scene gas attack, and romantic leads who look a lot like Julie Christie and Omar Shariff (Suzy Kendall and James Booth).


However, this ain't your mom's ZHIVAGO clone, unless your mom is a lesbian junky super spy working for WW1 Germany. The opening barbed wire silhouette and deep color splotch credit design is something straight out of the Corman Poe series, which is the next best thing to Saul Bass in the cool credits depts, and in some ways its kin are less ZHIVAGO and more the Marlene Dietrich Von Sternberg collaboration DISHONORED / Garbo's code-ruined MATA HARI... but 'bigger' and far dirtier, and more allegedly true. It dips its toes in a druggy kind of debauched super genius nastiness--our fraulein shoots up a lot of morphine, and when she stares lustily at the shots being given to dying soldiers, you feel her longing - and the lesbian seduction has a creepy Aldrich-ish freakshow quality--while staying true to the Zhivagosian 'sweep.' It's got De Laurentiis' fingerprints all over it, and most of all, as per De Laurentiis' best works, there's a sense of real moral ambiguity, where immorality is championed and condemned in equal measure.

 I never did much cotton to ZHIVAGO (the only character I liked was Rod Steiger's, so it made rooting for Omar a real hard task) but I dig that FRAULEIN takes what it wants (sweep, time period, trains) and leaves the rest, and that it keeps itself under two hours, and doesn't get lost in a maddening love story so much as have occasional touches of 'what might have been' but may or may not be two lovers bullshitting each other. But for all the differences, there's no doubt what blockbuster film our FRAULEIN is aping. Below are a bunch of stills and such... can you guess which are from Doctor Zhivago and which Doctor Fraulein?

(Answers, top to bottom: Zhivago 1, 4 / Fraulein - 2,3,5) 

Far less lush than Dr. Z, and occasionally dopey, Dr. F is still underrated, under-seen and would be just a stilted sweeper ala ENGLISH PATIENT, except for one thing -- Ennio Morricone!


Ennio Morricone was more than just the guy who brought electric guitars to the western, or children's sing song la la la's to giallo -- he proved that the right music could 'make' a movie appear out of nothing but a bunch of scenes. Under his baton the score became as essential an ingredient as actors or dialogue, even more so where international films are concerned and dubbing issues could often muddle and sour the story without a weird musical score to fill in the blanks. DOKTOR's  long lesbian scenes with Cappucine, the druggy 'shooting up' music when our junky anti-heroine fumbles for her vial; or the heroic little gestures of the Giancarlo Giannini's world weary spy, are amped up like a case of delirium tremens when Morricone is working the magic. Suddenly something that is inert becomes tragic and larger than life. Make no mistake, without Morricone, Italian exploitation cinema, from giallo to Laurentiis' blockbusters, would be nothing!


The film is all allegedly true, but you know espionage tales, you'll never get straight facts. Just enjoy the luridness and the first rate cast: Capucine (above) as a lesbian poison gas designer; Kenneth More as the head of British Intelligence; Nigel Green (COUNTESS DRACULA) as the head of German Intelligence, and a large crew of extras marching around in gas masks for the big finale, making me wonder if Ralph Bakshi used this movie for 'rotoscoping' backgrounds in WIZARDS. Best of all, it's World War One, not World War Two, so the German were still 'sporting' and 'gentlemanly' to a degree. You don't have to hate them as badly as  you would in a few years. It's also worth scoping out if you liked, say, a very similar international De Laurentiis film that mixed adult elements like drugs, (real) animal killing, hot girls, and lesbianism in with its 'historical' story, BLUEBEARD (1972). All that's missing, really, is what saved BLUEBEARD from Burton's boozy somnambulistic hamming, a little minx named Joey Heatherton.

Joey Heatherton... you make life complete. And FRAULEIN DOKTOR, you're not far behind. Firing Squad, commence streaming!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Acid: JESUS OF NAZARETH (1977)


Call me a heretic, but I know that if Jesus were around today he'd be passing out dosed wafers in the park like that dude in HAIR; and I believe in Claude, God, and Franco Zeffirelli because none are afraid of dropping the foolish game of fear/desire outer wheel edge running and moving straight to the center, where self-sacrifice made in pure love meets pure light and the borderline between life and death is dissolved like a line of salt up the nose of the Atlantic. That's Jesus' country. Happy Easter!


Back in 2000 I was assigned all of Zeffirelli's film for a search engine project so I actually sat down and watched the entire six-hour movie of JESUS OF NAZARETH in a single night. Dude! I got converted for the whole rest of the weekend. Being less than a year in AA, I literally saw the light --it was the 'pink light' phase of early recovery; I wept a lot in those days, with cathartic joy like my soul had been frozen up inside an iceberg for 20 years and now the ice was breaking off in big chunks as it melted in the pink light sun. THE APOSTLE and BROTHER SUN, SISTER MOON were two other films I saw around the same time, and they made me pink-light gratitude weepy as well. Props and gratitude to Bill W., Robert D., Franco Z, and Dr. Bob (and nurse Janis).

My previous relationship with Jesus had consisted first of resentful agitation via Sunday school, then anti-dogmatic arguments with various Christians, and then LSD various peaks and spiritual elevations, manic highs and exalted weekends, all followed by loss and depression. I would feel Jesus as my wingman, sometimes, and all would be glorious summer and love and egoless benevolence coursing like electricity through me, thanks to his magic... until he said, "Okay, now try it yourself for awhile, I have to go take care of something, I'll be back... soon." Pretty soon my whole magical worldview would implode as the devil would move in to fill the gap, like the 'fun' uncle. Then of course there's the heaping amount of intolerance that goes on JC's holy name, which he does nothing to stop. All in all, you could describe his behavior as 'erratic.'


But Jesus is the ultimate in cool customers; he waits and waits and never begs you to take him back. He waits 'til you're in that foxhole of mortal fear and your atheism melts in the panic and then he forgives you your trespasses and wanderings, and forgetting to call him; he never loses his edge of mystery; he's always the hottest guy in the room, spirituality-wise. But even if he doesn't exist except as a concept in a lot of folks' minds you have to agree that concepts have a lot of power. And like Martin Luther King or Gandhi, he inspired people to risk their lives in the name of love and an ideal, and that's not easy.


That's especially true in Zeffirelli's JESUS OF NAZARETH. According to my Argentine socialist intellectual filmmaker ex-wife, there's paintings and pictures all over South America taken from this mini-series TV event, and thus in millions of Catholic minds ever since. Actor Robert Powell's Jesus is Jesus. That's what makes me so suspicious of the Shroud of Turin, why does Jesus look exactly like Robert Powell?



This must be said: Powell's performance as Jesus is probably one of the most amazing, deeply spiritual things I've ever seen. With his "piercing blue eyes surrounded by plenty of white, same expression with the mouth, same ecstatic near-death look in the eyes," as Sir Guy of Gisbornne describes, "I remember being totally electrified by Powell (I was 8)."


I hear you, Sir Guy. I was electrified and I was 28!

My favorite scenes involve Michael York as a gonzo John the Baptist (above). We even get to see Salome (Isabel Mestres) dance for King Herod (Christopher Plummer) and get old John's head served to her on the proverbial platter. York's big baptism scene with Powell is a powerhouse moment that rocketed me into archaic Christian nirvana. The rest of the cast is solid aces: Ann Bancroft as Mary Magdalene, Olivia Hussey the Virgin Mary, and the rest of the cast is all in beards.... except for the delectable Claudia Cardinale who is the adulteress Jesus saves from stoning. And the film has a great momentum, very linear - whatever scene they're in, they're talking about how worried or excited they are at what's coming up, then Boom, they go right to that, and talk about the next scene, Bam! It's a good steady rhythm that leaves no room for dullness.


The fist stone-casting scene is one of the best. While anger brews, Jesus is sitting on the ground throwing small rocks back and forth against a wall and staring at them like runes as the local freaks want to stone a death for the usual infidelity (you know, like they still do in places where I wish it could be arranged that any man who throws a rock at a woman dies suddenly and painfully) -- suddenly he gets up and launches into the "ye without sin" speech, and it flows so organically you're like, yo Jesus! I fucking love you! And Powell finds the line between being ass-kicking and fearless, masculine and idealistic, with being fathomlessly compassionate and kind.


Another hugely powerful moment is the crucifixion scene. We've seen Jesus take everything in stride, even his beating and whipping and thorn crowning, and nailing hands to the cross, but it's when the Romans hoist up the cross and Jesus feels the agony in his hands and shoulders as he's lifted up by these wounds that his eyes suddenly bug out in total surprise and pain. It's like this finally is so much pain he's suddenly agonizingly human, just for a second. His transcendence afterwards thus has so much power, even a stone shall not go unmoved.

So with all that in mind, shouldn't all these stone-minded Christians stop stoning our beloved Lindsay Lohan?  If this film were remade, she'd be the ideal choice to play the adulteress. Talk about forcing those unconscious fuckers to take a second or two before casting their next nasty e-comment!


So, wrapping up this sermon: Happy second birthday, Jesus! Keep coming back, it works if you work it so work it, we're worth it, and you're worth workin' it for. Even if those who act in your name are often violent idiots you're still cool. Amen, brother! Thank you thank you thank you. And Jesus, your Zeffirelli biography with all its actual locations, strong acting, fast-pace, trenchant insight, and painterly lush photography, and awesome Powell, York, and Hussey would look awesome on blu-ray! Just sayin' - if you want to pull some strings.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

WC Fields Forever: The Film Forum, NYC, starting Friday 4/22


It's impossible to avoid ballyhooing it up when announcing the seminal event in mine or any other film drunkard's life, the Film Forum's WC Fields retrospective, beginning tomorrow, Friday April 22nd. Unless I'm mistaken it includes every single film--even the silents and shorts--the Great Man ever appeared in. If you're unfamiliar with Fields, think Hank Quinlan in TOUCH OF EVIL if he drank more and strangled Akim Tamiroff less; think Nic Cage in LEAVING LAS VEGAS if he didn't leave, and didn't care about sex, love, or any form of gambling he couldn't cheat at; think Ray Milland in LOST WEEKEND if he stopped cringing and learned to laugh at the mouse-eating bats in his belfry. In fact, Fields would size up these aforementioned cinematic drunks and proclaim them a lot of "sissies." (He'd probably tolerate Geoffrey in UNDER THE VOLCANO, though).

Ironically, Fields never hit the big time until he was old, and almost dead, in THE BANK DICK. But he worked all through the silent era, and in Vaudeville, where he was huge, and came from a literal hard-knock life as a child in Philadelphia, a life few of us will hopefully ever come close to having. That trauma and pain was used by him as the ailment for which booze was the cure, and his clear-eyed ambivalence about the death he was drinking himself to is reflected in his existential gallows humor.


As for women, no luck or much interest sexually, but he loved to have young girls around--daughters, nieces, visiting princesses--and tolerated a slew of shrewish wives while generally steering clear of intimacy or most other physical endeavors outside of juggling, golf, deep elbow-bending, and pool, at which he was a master. He was married to booze, period, and like all true drunks, this singleness of purpose made him an almost holy figure, sanctifying him in film after film as the caretaker of abandoned orphan-style tykes and studio proteges. They were safer with Fields in his cups than they would be with any priest or adopted 'righteous' parents. Fields ferried orphans to rich relatives in SALLY IN THE SAWDUST, and POPPY while 'saving' a princess's life in YOU'RE TELLING ME, and protecting his daughter from bullies and/or suitors in MILLION DOLLAR LEGS, THE BANK DICK, and MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE. He also was given a niece in NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK. Perfect companions to this staggering talent, these girls and Fields worked together in a way that was surprisingly touching, especially considering Fields' rep as a reprobate and raconteur.

But it's his aggressive carny pitchmen and towering drunks that really stick out, and who made him such a hit on college campuses in the 1960s, and ever since for some of us, you know who you are, and you need to stop to drinking, or at least stop long enough to get out to the Film Forum.

Below I've laid out the first few films of the schedule for your convenience, but you can also check it out here on the FF website. I've seen most of them (though not in these new prints) except for a few of the silents and ALICE IN WONDERLAND, so I've rated them as well, in case you need to be choosy:


Friday and Saturday - April 22/23:
IT'S A GIFT - 1934 - **** (dir. Norman Z. McLeod) / THE DENTIST 1932 - *** / MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE- 1935 - *** (dir. Clyde Bruckman)
Fields had two personae: the roustabout carny pitchman who'd rob his own grandmother to pay his bar tab, and the harried husband, stoically enduring abuse at the hands of a shrill wife and loudmouth kids until he finally (hopefully) snaps. IT'S A GIFT is far and away Fields' best in the latter category, with one memorable set piece after another. THE DENTIST has been floating around in so many butchered public domain editions that the the occasional flash of 'what the hell' as Fields ends up practically mating with one of his female patients is sometimes long lost, but not this time, Josephine! FLYING TRAPEZE is, confidentially, one of the weaker of the family man films, with primitive Hal Roach-style gags, a truly evil wife and a stepson who steals Fields' wrestling ticket and otherwise makes life hell for him and his daughter from a previous marriage. Fields endures it all until...well, look out. The best part is the beginning, a gag involving burglars breaking into Fields' homemade liquor barrel.


Sunday/Monday - April 24/25
DAVID COPPERFIELD 1935 - **** (dir. George Cukor) / ALICE IN WONDERLAND 1933 - ? - (Norman Z. McLeod)
I've never actually seen ALICE, and though I've heard it's a bupke from nearly everyone, that consensus shan't stop me from attending. Why? Fields as Humpty Dumpty! Cary Grant as a mockturtle! Etc.! I have however seen COPPERFIELD and it's first rate -- Fields was a huge Dickens fan and gave this his all -- but it's no comedy, especially with Basil Rathbone as the sadistic evil stepfather, and Fields only shows up towards the second half. But once he does show up he's so great, and the previous stuff is so grim, that tears shall surely ensue.

So if you're in NYC this coming weekend, look around for me! Say hi! Say, what's up!? You're not a jabberknowl, you're not a mooncalf, you're not those things, are you? Speaking of which, there's always some weird old man with a green plastic binder who sits right next to me, unbidden, whenever I go to revivals at the Forum, and he grins and looks at me during the jokes! It blows my mind, I can't escape him, so if you can't find me, just look for him, and shudder...

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Pre-Code Capsules IV: PRESTIGE, CHANDU THE MAGICIAN, BLONDE VENUS, OUR BETTERS, BEAST OF THE CITY

PRESTIGE
1931-***
Melvyn Douglas dissolves before our eyes as a French officer put in charge of colonial Vietnam's most sweltering prison camp. Adolphe Zukor is the scheming major with designs on Douglas' new wife, Ann Harding; he probably sent Douglas off to the camp in the first place. Harding's dad says she shouldn't follow Douglas into this jungle hell, but if she does she already has the only thing that can save her there, the 'prestige' of being white. She must never slacken her grip or lose her superior breeding! Never! The natives are a mix of African-American extras, genuine Asians, and ugly white dudes in a lot of make-up, all depicted as little more than untamed animals in comparison with the staunch white man and his wife. The spectre of miscegenation hangs throughout!

A product of the relatively rough-edged RKO-Pathe studio, PRESTIGE has strong expressionist touches and excellent tracking shots: with fire dances, cockfights, guillotines, whips, chains, and general white-on-black brutality, it's like John Ford on bad acid and malaria. Simultaneously racist and anti-colonialist, PRESTIGE should be shown in every college class about Vietnam, as a horrific reminder of the wrongness of colonial rule. As the screwed-over 'hero,' Douglas sweats, collapses, shakes and turns sadistic, chaining up prisoners, guillotining rebel leaders while devolving into a hate-filled drunk. Harding is her usual lovely, wistful self. Her soft voice ever crackling with dignity and emotion, as befits her 'white prestige,' she does what she can, but they won't even let her hang curtains. And the ending is intense, lurid, and nihilistic. Hurrah!


CHANDU THE MAGICIAN
1932- ***
Edmund Lowe takes things a little lighter than PRESTIGE's Melvyn Douglas for this more kid-friendly but still decidedly racist and colonially smug pre-code film.  Chandu (Lowe) is a stage magician who's learned the mystic secrets of the Yogis so now can do wilder rope tricks while saving the world from non-white power mongers like Bela Lugosi, who's kidnapped Chandu's scientist brother-in-law (Henry B. Walthall) to work on a death ray that can destroy zee vorld!


Though one must put up with a shitload of tired comic relief from a drunken limey who bugs his eyes out over Chandu's magic tricks CHANDU's worth watching for the constant bizarre touches and Lugosi's scenery-chewing. Speaking of fiery death rays, check out June Lang (below) in her sheer white gown being auctioned at a slave mart filled with lusty sheiks! Like PRESTIGE, CHANDU considers it a betrayal of white breeding to be so much as pawed by non-white hands, which of course made such pawing a popular threat in pre-code exotica.


BLONDE VENUS
1932 - ***
The first and (wisely) last time Paramount ever gave Marlene Dietrich a kid and husband, Von Sternberg here seems to be lampooning typcal pre-code women's pictures, showing Marlene as a good mom who must go back to her old habits of vamping to pay for husband Herbert Marshall's radium treatments. He taciturnly snaps about his cuckolding benefactor: "I don't know whether to thank him or shoot him... dead!" When you're Herbert Marshall and the guy is Cary Grant, you're better off just thanking him, but Marshall instead labels Marlene an unfit mother. Much taking it on the lam ensues. 

 

As a swinger in retirement, nothing gets me down like watching a layabout like Herbert Marshall use a kid to keep his hotter younger wife imprisoned in his stifling patriarchal caress du condescension. First, we're 'treated' to the early days of how Marshall and Dietrich met--he and his student pals stumble on her and some friends skinny-dipping in a sparkly stream, and they proceed to leer to their heart's content, which right there seems shitty and frat boyish. Next we see the divine M with her sleeves rolled up, bathing little Johnny while Marshall looks on, and, yeesh, you can't wait for her to bail on them both and get back into a smooth nightclub with some folks her own age. So much as I admire it, BLONDE VENUS is my least favorite of Dietrich's films with Von Sternberg. Even the esteemed "Hot Voodoo" sequence loses its edge once she puts on that hideous disco 'fro wig (above). Still, there are more great moments scattered around it than a dozen ordinary films, like the innuendo-driven shot of a fat diner owner puffing his cigar in anticipation of how the now broke Dietrich is going to pay for the meal she just fed to her little Johnny. Du hast mich betrogen, Johnny, in der ersten Stundt, indeed!

OUR BETTERS
1933 - ****
One of my favorite recent TCM discoveries, this has great saucy dialogue and sophisticated ideas on lover-swapping, especially as concerns two ladies of title, the American-born heiress Lady Grayston (Constance Bennett) and her voracious Duchess pal Minnie (Violet Kemble-Cooper) and her constant gigolo, Pepi (Gilbert Roland). A weekend in the country is called for, REGLE DU JEU-style, wherein Grayston hopes to get it on in the poolside bath house with Pepi and placate Minnie with the guest of honor, a fey dance instructor named Earnest, the hardest to get houseguest in the whole of upper crust London. Meanwhile Anita Louise, Alan Mowbray, and others look on, askance.

George Cukor--as few have before or since--really shows how the right gay male at the right time makes any party ten times better and Earnest's last act entry really kicks home the idea of a weekend party's hungover Sunday. Maybe you know the feeling: you've had a great drunken time but now its Sunday and you can barely remember how and when you may have made a fool of yourself the night before. You're anxious to leave before brunch so you can get home to your private bar and video collection, but are stopped on the way out by the late arrival of the very person you'd been hoping would come the night before. This late arrival's lack of connection with last night's damage makes him like an embodiment of fresh starts and forgiveness as he just starts rearranging everyone's mood even as the butler's taking your bag out to the car. So who laughs last? Call Earnest a stereotype, but he's delightful and even gets the priceless closing line: "There's no finer sight in the world than.. two women of title, kissing each other!"

BEAST OF THE CITY 
1932 - ***
"Instead of the glorification of the gangster, we need the glorification of the policeman" explains the scroll from Herbert Hoover that opens BEAST OF THE CITY. Indirectly justifying the existence of police brutality, Hoover's letter finds its poster child in Captain 'Fightin'" Fitzgerald (Walter Huston), the Irish-Catholic representative of pre-Dirty Harry vigilante-mindedness, struggling to keep the streets of his nameless city clean while gangster-glorifying reporters gum up the works. Yes, it's MGM doing what Warners did best, a nose-to-the-pavement gangster picture, and trying to do what no other studio was dumb enough to try (except maybe Columbia), take Hoover seriously and apply bourgeois downward flowing morals to a lowbrow genre. Nothing is more anathema to genuine art than the lionization of working class 'values.' The only person who could ever make working class sentimentality seem genuine--since he damn well drunkenly believed in it--was John Ford. And BEAST director Charles Brabin is no John Ford.


All early gangster pictures were forced by citizen's groups to insert scenes of 'ordinary citizens' protesting newspapers' glorification of the gangster--these scenes were hep people's cues to go the rest room or refill their popcorn-- but in BEAST the citizen's groups have a point about who the real enemy is--the press! The cops endure a regular drubbing from the reporters who in turn influence the politicians, who need the favor of those reporters for campaign PR. Thus, the public's morbid interest in hoodlums itself indirectly breeds corruption in local government! Ladies and gentlemen, writs of habeas corpus are the tool of the mobster even more than Tommy guns! Huston could slap the truth out of 'em in five minutes, but the politicians have taken away his most important tool, his fists!  

Of course one thing that made the gangster film so alluring was its wrongness, and since MGM's idea of glorifying cops is to make them into brutish, cabbage-fed simpletons (scenes include Huston reading the funnies to son Mickey Rooney over pancakes before church and other pious drivel), you no longer get that giddy feeling of wrongness that comes from the best WB pictures, especially since the police brutality isn't directly shown. 


There are perks though: Wallace Ford is good as Figthing Fitz's brother, a cop who doesn't mind taking a drink once in awhile, especially if it's with Jean Harlow (as an unreformed moll in reformed moll clothing who sends Ford down a slippery path), and there's complex pre-code politics involving citizen's groups dictating the concessions corrupt politicians must make towards law and order, something that results in Huston being elected police chief. After his men applaud his first speech, Huston barks: "Never mind those open hands, ball em into fists and use 'em!"

But this approach also illuminates how prohibition creates contempt for the law: when you prosecute victimless crimes (no one is really glad when Fightin' Fitz closes all the bars) the more violent (and foreign) elements of gangland eagerly step in to fill the need. So while Ford gets corrupted by Harlow's smooching and bootleg booze maybe Fighting Fitz is indirectly the one to blame. Meanwhile, there's lots of heroin references, as when Fitz barks: "Take away your guns and your hops and you're yellow crawling maggots."  The liberal media may have enlightened us all to the dehumanizing racism in films like BLONDE VENUS, PRESTIGE, and CHANDU, but when it comes dehumanizing opiate addicts. well, some things just never go out of style.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Hex and Taxes


Emancipation Day and The Income Tax Due Date bracketed this past weekend, making it the right time to rent a ghost story/steampunk Dirty South Risin' hybrid comic book adaptation, on blu-ray, and play it loud... proud-like. Josh Brolin stars, in scarry face and surly voice as JONAH HEX (2010), a Confederate officer left to die by an evil rebel general (John Malkovich). Medicine men show up and bring him back to life, but he stays half in the other world, and that's what gives the film its edge - Hex can talk to the dead, and the dead are pissed.


Co-starring as the love interest is the aptly named Megan Fox, a raven beauty whose flawless face is here for some reason shot through the kind of Vaseline haze usually reserved for older women. A derringer-toting prostitute, she fights everyone else like a wildcat, and thank god we're spared their first date, and other dull set-ups. In fact the whole mess of mysterious origin stuff is summed up the way it would be in a comic book, if you were starting with, say, issue #34, as a page of flashback before the credits. As this film runs a lean 78 minutes, there's a nice random issue feeling, all swinging axes and splash page eyebrow raises and abundant stones still unturned (would have loved to see them thar hell hounds). What makes the film unique are the touches like Hex rapping with the dead and I dig Hex's followed by a murder of CGI crows wherever he may ride --he's the Raoul Duke of the Old West.

Brolin's manly gravitas and deadpan humor bumps any film up a star, so I'm cool with the fact I couldn't see what was going on in any of the night action scenes, and I especially liked the overall lack of rape or inordinate torturing, which makes it all relatively suitable for children and sensitive feminists, of which I'm both. Rather than kill Hex and Fox when he gets the chance, Malkovich just chains them up like those self-defeating supervillains who used to work for Batman and Robin, allowing for easy escape and vows to return same Hex time, same Hex channel. Though based on the low rate of returns, Hex won't be back, ah reckon.

But I read the DC Jonah Hex comics as a kid and they were okay; they endeavored to combine old west stuff with DC's safe but diverting horror ala House of Mystery / House of Secrets.  That was all well and good but his horrid scar, which has left a pointless strand of flesh connecting his lips, made me think of too many gross lunchroom incidents. THE WILD WILD WEST is a clearer ancestor of HEX's new look in the film version, which doesn't seem to make sense, but then again steampunk is as steampunk does, and in the end, what counts is Fox and Brolin play it as deadpan straight as Adam West and Burt Ward before them, and that the villain Malkovich hams it up old-school, which is how it should be. Best part, the soundtrack isn't annoying or cliche'd John Williams recyclables, HEX was probably longer at one point, and got edited down like it was a Cantonese Kung Fu film after a trip through the Miramax miracle dub-and-cut threshing machine. Maybe there will be a director's cut? I'd buy it if it went up to 111 minutes!


In the end, though, what makes HEX almost worthwhile is the exposed layers of racist red state confusion in having a hero be a ghostly avenger from the Confederate army. In order to prove he's not racist he buys all his steampunk ordinance from an African American 'Q'-type, who makes sure we know--via expository dialogue-- Hex was never big on the whole slavery thing even though he wore the grays. He just fought the North because they were trying to tell him what to do. And Hex doesn't like being told what to do... unlike the rubes who follow the feudal doctrines of the quick buck that made JONAH trimmed to the point of near-incoherence, or the people enthralled by Fox News, who basically let an old Australian billionaire tell them what Americans think. Emancipation redaction operation alpha, engage!


Seeing the beholden mess our country's in, it may be hard not to root for the evil Malkovich rather than Brolin's Hex--who is a bit too much like the Robert Ryan character in THE WILD BUNCH, hunting down the anti-corruption rebels on behalf of evil congressmen--after all Col. Malkovich doesn't rape people, and he's into cool explosions and fighting the powa. Maybe he's right, and people who vote against their own best interests like hypnotized lemmings are the poison of democracy. In fact, no maybe about it. Then again, maybe we're all a little bit Jonah Hex too in our taciturn refusal to grant ourselves basic human rights; we like to keep one foot in Hell just so the other seems, by association, almost heavenly. Sometimes talking to the dead and watching TV are really one and the same and though JONAH HEX bombed with critics, it flew for me. I hope Hex comes back, and maybe in that, as in so many other things, I ride alone... but at least I'm not a slave... except to whiskey, and Megan, and mortality, and my own helpless rage against the ceaselessly gushing flood tide of base pasteurized moronic idiocracy that stifles our land's true grit.