Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Tale of Three Anti-Capitalist Musicals: HALLELUJAH I'M A BUM, BRIGADOON, MARAT/SADE

HALLELUJAH I'M A BUM
1933 - **** - dir. Lewis Milestone
A pre-code salute to vagrancy, anarchism, and the days when Central Park was a refuge for depression-era homelessness, Milestone's delightful film is crammed with half-spoken Rogers and Hart songs lamenting the amount of work it takes to remain unemployed ("You own the world / when you don't own a thing"). There's enough economic savvy and cool Central Park set design here to make it both Brechtian and bucolic, an AS YOU LIKE IT with Central Park as Arden and Jolson the swaggering Mack the Knife from THE THREE PENNY OPERA if he was played by a balding Marx brother; with the evil duke a thousand dollar bill Jolson finds in the trash --the very rumor of which sends the park's unwashed denizens into a near riot. Hard boiled softie newspaper man-turned-Broadway scribe Ben Hecht wrote the shit out of it-- Imagine the Lubitsch touch on a SCARFACE spittoon. One of the many awesome little joys is hearing Frank "The Wonderful Wizard" Morgan saying "there's no place like home, there's no place like home, there's no place like home" six years early!



I've avoided ever seeing THE JAZZ SINGER (1929) on account of my apprehension of boredom, blackface and schmaltz, but now I want to, indeed, must see it. Though he may be a throwback to a bygone age of minstrels in the 'Swanee / how I love ya how I love ya! Mammy!' jazz-hands tradition, there's something blue collar grotesque about Jolson (if he was taller he could play Moose Malloy). He doesn't seem to be imitating black people or minstrels--that's just him - he's a leftover survivor from a bygone age when everyone sang and acted with gigantic smiles plastered on their pusses, irregardless of if they had huge gaps in their teeth. Watching the film nearly 80 years later, he seems like a cross between a  a lost Marx Brother impersonating Maurice Chevalier, and the misbegotten love child of Lauren Hutton and Frankenstein. With his pancake makeup, strange elocution, and black lipstick he seems like some monstrous human railroad track between all races, religions, and classes... in short, America. And respect the unique frumpiness of Harry Langdon as a  socialist agitant trash collector ("your clothes are worn and your socks have holes / but you're plutocrats down to your souls!"), and dig gorgeous Madge Evans as the mayor's amnesiac mistress, whom Jolson heroically rescues when she plunges several feet off a Central Park bridge into the shallow stream below. Needless to say Jolson falls, too, in love, and he decides to get a job to support his soaked siren, much to the shock and horror of his hobo friends and well-wishers. Capitalism, in short, is for lovers, but it's not admirable!

 BRIGADOON
1954- **1/2 - dir. Vincente Minnelli
You never thought a magical Scottish hamlet could be boring, but you're wrong. Vincente Minnelli clearly has no grasp of what makes Scottish culture great, i.e. Scotch whiskey. Alcohol here is clearly associated with a crowded Manhattan bar Gene Kelly and sourpuss drunk Van Johnson inhabit before and after their trip to Scotland (to shoot grouse, of all things). Scotland is played by various uninspired sets on which Kelly climbs and taps and sings like a silly monkey.

Minnelli stacks the deck by making everyone at the bar vulgarians and Kelly's fiancee a social climbing materialistic bitch. But associating booze with big city shallowness doesn't allay the dull piety of the mythical town itself, which is stranded in a fundamentalist annex of John Ford chaperone-and-plow malarkey but without Ford's magic touch. This ain't the Scottish musical version of THE QUIET MAN, much as it would like to be. For one thing, more booze and fistfights, and ghosts, would have helped. And the widescreen formatting--meant for giant Cinemascope stretch screens-- eschews close-ups and fast edits (such things made audiences nauseous and disoriented on such large canvases)  in favor of long shots on obvious stage sets, where, for example, everyone's dancing feet are at the bottom of the screen, and their heads at the top, duplicating a Broadway theater experience, perhaps, but in failing to explore the magical possibilities of its subject, even on the big screen it's enough to reduce you to napping in all the wrong places.


If you want something magically Scottish, check out I KNOW WHERE I'M GOING or LOCAL HERO. What you get from BRIGADOON is the dry notion that Scottish culture is so inhibited it makes Irish Catholics look like Haight-Ashbury hippies  Considering the awesomeness of the stars--Kelly and my favorite Cyd Charisse--there's some surprisingly awkward dancing amidst the finery, and the super sexy Cyd is barely recognizable: her legs hidden in thick skirts, shapely upper regions sheathed in a highlands sash. She's supposed to look wan and bonny but often just seems sad and hungover.

Meanwhile Van Johnson is the ugly American personified, grousing about how he came to Scotland to shoot grouse and making alcohol look bad as he drawls off his endless flask and shotguns treed locals. Why does Kelly insist on bringing him along? He's like Ronald Coleman's ungrateful brother in LOST HORIZON. Why go to Scotland just to deal with that kind of crap? Just don't hang out with him! On the other hand, does Kelly really want to eat haggis and smell peat moss fires and offal for the rest of time immortal? Why doesn't he just go back to New York and find a different bar? One less crowded and boorish? He's a grass is greener type, aye, and sure'n the grass is no greener than in a wee place you can never get to except once every hundred years.

MARAT/SADE
1967 **** - dir. Peter Brook.
Glenda Jackson stabs a guy named Marat during the French Revolution, while the Marquis de Sade looks on, delighted, and corrects flubbed lines--or are his corrections part of the play within the play? Meanwhile the mental institution director interrupts too, but in rhyme, so is he part of the play or not? What are all these interruptions! Revolution!!

Based on Peter Weiss's play-within-a-play about some drama therapy at the insane asylum of Charenton under the direction of the Marquis de Sade, the full UK title is "The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade", and since you're watching this on TV now you're watching a video of a movie of a play within a play about the French Revolution, so there's guillotines, Brechtian frame-bending through a whole maze of fourth walls, and long twisted monologues about walking through the bloody streets of Paris, rolling like a river of severed heads and blood, and bath steam, and the special way syphilis makes you insane (antibiotics had yet to be invented) and hydrotherapy might help for the moment but there's no cure for the madness of trying to create a government for the people when the people are all corrupt, murderous, uneducated, unwashed denizens!

I used to intern in the creative arts therapy drama department at Bellevue, so I know the score, and this here's real! Watch out Glenda Jackson doesn't reach right out from the screen and stab you too. Superb on every level, some of the songs are almost Fairport Convention-level psych-folkish. As the NY Times TV critic used to say, pounce. Or in this case, stream! Enjoy the digital fruits of your capitalist bourgeois internet whilst you may.  New Marats are born every day, or am I thinking of mallrats? Either way, we're doomed.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Capsules d'Monstre: GHIDORAH, PHANTASM II, MANSTER, THE SMILING GHOST, KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS

GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER
1964 - dir. Ishiro Honda
****
I've seen a lot of Godzilla movies as a kid but I never... until lately. Man, GHIDORAH is the best one! Maybe it's Akira Ifukube's great, blowsy ominous-cool bassoon jazz score, which perfectly captures the drunken heaviness of these here monster giants as they stagger around and down volcanoes and bump into apartment complexes. Ifukube's cues repeat over and over but that's fine.  The dubbing is solid. The framing and colors are comic book perfection. Maybe it's because it ingeniously integrates a lot of fringe science elements. GHIDORAH: Number One!


It seems a bunch of scientists have been having nightly meetings with UFOs, so they invite a lady reporter to come check out how cool they are. When the UFOs don't come the night she's there, they accuse her of sending skeptical brainwaves out into the atmosphere and scaring the aliens off! Skeptical brainwaves! When the reporter dismisses the idea that brainwaves even exist, the scientists smile patronizingly. That's cool despite being sexist because it shows the easy way science can flip-flop on issues, condemning non-believers with an array of defense mechanisms, from witch burning to shows like Fact or Faked and Myth-busters. One day they sneer at the 'nuts' who believe UFOs exist; the next day they sneer at the 'cranks' who believe they don't. Look at the scientist's desk above and you see the way science might have matured had not events like Roswell been so effectively hushed up.


Anyway, later that night some hot princess of the mythical kingdom of Sergina (Akiko Wakabayashi) is abducted from her private plane by a UFO right before a terrorist bomb blows it to bits. The next day, scientists investigate a meteor that crashed in the mountains and left a huge Ghidorah egg. The princess appears at the dock, now possessed by a Martian (below) for a dockside press conference: "I come from the planet you call Mars! The earth--your planet-- is on the brink of destruction, and you refuse to take it seriously." They laugh. And the hatching egg is their reward. Look who's come all the way from space to show you that three heads are better than one, and that killing whales, dolphins, and Nanking is wrong! Ghidorah functions here as a kind of anti-global terrorist bomb, sent to wipe out violent civilizations before they can become a threat to the Galactic Federation (which is a real thing, according to my in-the-know informants!)

 

Of course, the glee with which Japan is wiped out time and again has become dampened by recent cataclysms, but can we doubt this scrappy dolphin-hating nation won't bounce back? So I got to go with Ghidorah on this one, even if those cute Mothra handler sisters are around to sing their little songs to get Godzilla and the latest incarnation of Mothra (still in caterpillar form) to unite against him. Then that Ifukube drunken bassoon score really stumbles into low, low gear, and the rumble atop the volcanic jungle is on.

 It's true, I used to root for the bad guys as a child watching Speed Racer; being a tot and inexperienced, I kept thinking "This time... this time they'll finally win." They never won! Like me, in kickball. Ghidorah, I want that Mach-5 crushed underfoot!

PHANTASM II 
1988 - dir. Don Coscarelli
***
Who knows where we go after we die? The Shadow and Don Coscarelli know, or at least dare to look in the same trans-dimensional direction as fringe theorists like David Icke and Nick Redfern. Like its predecessor, PHANTASM II deconstructs down to reveal what it's like to see the warped mysteries of humanity's archaic funeral rituals through the eyes of a young terrified child and getting lost in the mausoleum while his parents engage in whatever odd formalities parents go through, and being freaked out by the glint of the fading afternoon sun on the shiny marble walls, imagining a flying metal ball coming around looking for you, to drill out your pineal gland (the home of the soul) for use in bizarre fourth dimensional enslavement rites. Also, there's the ingenious STAR WARS-associative use of Jawa fashions for the tall man's undead ghost-dwarf minions.


Considering all the bizarre accoutrements of the funeral trade, you can imagine there being a hidden white room in the mortuary, where corpses are compacted for rebirth in a dimension where the gravity is much stronger, the colors morphed, and the winds relentless. The dimension when finally shown eerily resembles near-death experiences of the unlucky ones who miss the white light. Such people report their astral body/soul floating up to the white light and then being snatched by hands emerging from the dark shadows along the tunnel's sides, yanked into this prison of Hell, where untold despair is instilled and harvested!

Whoa, hey! Too much? Then just enjoy this low key TERMINATOR-meets-EVIL DEAD thrill ride movie, with its periodic in-jokes (the name on one bag of cremation ashes is "Sam Raimi") and pretend you're in a car at a crumbling drive-in in the early 1980s, the world alive with youth, health, and bravado... all of which about to shortly crumble down around you, like the drive-in itself, until all that's left are ashes in an urn and an undead dwarf in a brown robe, texting furiously.


THE MANSTER
1959 - dir. George P. Breakson
***
Here's something you don't see often: a black and white Japanese horror movie where all the actors speak English (i.e. they are not post-dubbed). Pretty awesome, as is the moody but economical black and white photography and surplus of monsters. The story has the evil Dr. Suzuki (Tetsu Nakamara) and his hot assistant (Terri Zimmern) drugging (with experimental mutant-making serum) a dimwitted American journalist named Larry (Peter Dynely) then having Terri seduce him so that he'll stick around Japan and they can monitor him as he d/evolves. Adrift in the Tokyo bar scene, Larry starts drinking heavily, skulking around at night, killing random people, lusting for Terri, and avoiding his journalistic responsibilities.

Terri Zimmern
Dialogue is awesome in its directness; acting is okay; low-key B-movie expressionism rocks, as in the famous Dali-esque eyeball shoulder scene, and a Val Letwon-RKO kind of midnight ramble through a Zen Buddhist temple. So keenly rendered is the way the serum makes Larry into a hard-drinking, surly mess that I would recommend this movie to rehab centers. There's even some intervention-style drama with a clingy gaijin wife (Jayne Hilton) who wants Larry to come home and live a life of quiet desperation and he can't stand quiet desperation! As we say in AA, I really related.

THE SMILING GHOST
1941 - dir. Lewis Selier
**1/2
This all-nonsense studio B-picture concerns a layabout man-for-hire (Wayne Morris) brought to a mysterious estate to marry an heiress (Alexis Smith) with a rep as 'the black widow' since her last three husbands have died. She wants to find out why, so marries our dimwit handyman hero as bait. Cue sheet metal thunder and secret panels! Meanwhile a spunky female reporter (Brenda Marshall) snoops around in the bushes and an old uncle (Charles Halton) tries to add Willie Best's  slack-jawed noggin to his shrunken head collection. I've seen some horribly racist caricatures of black people in old horror movies, but nothing quite like this. Willie Best even withholds vital information that could save lives because he's too busy overacting, as when he witnesses a secret passage open and shut and--even after armed good guys burst into the room moment later--all he can do is run away gibbering and bug-eyed instead of telling them where the panel is. It's almost enough to make you forget the rest of the movie's pretty good. It's not Best's fault but unlike Mantan Moreland's similar roles, there's no subversive actorly subtext (that I noticed anyway).

Brenda Marshall
Tiffany Bolling and friend
KINGDOM THE SPIDERS
1977 - dir. John "Bud" Cardos
***1/2
A loose remake of THE BIRDS, this spawn of the post-JAWS environ-amok genre stars William Shatner as a small town Arizona veterinarian and Tiffany Bolling as a big town etymologist sent in to help when toxicology on a dead calf reveals spider venom. She's the Melanie Daniels, Marcy Lafferty (Shatner's real-life wife at the time) is the Annie Hayworth. The meet cute is at a gas station instead of a pet store, but there's still the holing up at the hotel bar with the cross section of the populace, and the big attack with people running around in panic with creatures on them.

The Arizona scenery is beautiful with mesas like the ones in STAGECOACH. The worried black rancher (Woody Strode) fearful of losing his livestock in a quarantine-- "he worked for seven years to get that bull!"--is allowed much dignity and concern, so we're slowly climbing up the stereotypes from Best's cowardly manservant to over-serious humble sobriety... it's still a cliche, though, and he and his wife are the first humans to die. It's pretty dumb that the white folks decide to go on a picnic after finding the dead black couple lying in the grass covered with arachnid bites. Dumb, but typical.


But hey, you know this film is awesome when a tarantula--with scary library music cues filling the soundtrack--slowly climbs up onto Bolling's desk and into the open desk drawer while she's in the shower. When she finds it, Bolling doesn't flinch, just smiles like she's found a kitten, cradles it in her hand, then releases it outside. Tiffany Bolling, in other words, kicks ass! I love the way she towers over Shatner, and gently mocks him when he tries to seduce her, while still letting him continue to try. Her reputation amongst the Psychotronic set is well-deserved. I instantly ordered BONNIE'S KIDS after seeing this, and rented TRIANGLE (1970). Bill Shatner earns his cult, too, especially when he does an awesome high-stepping dance to not step on any of the spiders. He sometimes does step on them, but at least no hairpieces were harmed during the making of this movie.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Queen of Daze: PJ Soles in ROCK AND ROLL HIGH SCHOOL (1979)

 


The blowing up of one's school was a sacred fantasy to us, the sugar-crazed kids in the 1970s; we imagined big explosions and gym mats and sneakers raining in slow motion down over our neighborhood. It was a time long before ADD, Columbine, or anthrax, a time when a little pyrotechnic destruction of one's school was expected, allowed, respected. And it's that fantasy that comes true in ROCK AND ROLL HIGH SCHOOL, and it's never since been depicted before or since with such strident rock defiance.  If ROCK was released now, well... it just wouldn't be released at all, so why even ponder? As it is, we'll always have 1979.


The school's fate is sealed with the arrival of a new principal (Mary Woronov, drawing on her experience playing cruel dyke prison wardens) at Vince Lombardi High. She's determined to weed out the bad kids, such as platter-spinning Ramones devotee Riff Randle (PJ Soles). Oblivious to this looming threat, Riff just knows if she can get her songs to Joey Ramone he'd sing them, she think he's dreamy and if PJ Soles can think a hunched beanpole doofus like Joey Ramone is dreamy then there is surely hope for us all. Meanwhile an insecure jock played by Vince Van Patten pays for make-out lessons from the school's drug dealer, and Woronov's loyal EATING RAOUL comrade Paul Bartel is the music teacher who ends up joining the revolution, declaring that "if Beethoven were a student at Vince Lombardi, he'd be a Ramone!"


The music of the Ramones is the perfect pogo-ready soundtrack to the angsty years of high school and their nonstop rock infects the entire rhythm of the film, gradually pulling the narrative away from Randle and Co's high school persecution and into total celebration of rock and roll, and in particular, the album Road to Ruin, which Riff Randle plays while relaxing with a joint in her bedroom. She puffs and rocks so righteous, the Ramones even appear... Joey even serenades her in her shower!


This fantasy sequence, in foxy orange undergarments, maintains an admirable mix of the edgy and innocent. A joint is no indication of sexual activeness in a cool movie like this. And the band's too busy playing to ever submit to the petty lusts that drag other rock films down. Soles and her Ramones puritans of punk, replacing sex with destruction, and when the Ramones come to the local rock theater, Joey reads Riff's letter on stage it seems natural. Of course they will show up at the school. Of course slutty teen groupies are a fact of life on the road, but again, I admire how Randle's almost spiritual devotion to their primitivist rock energy transcends any rote deflowering on their end. And for their part, her letter is taken seriously enough to let you know they're more than just on the look-out for easy tail. She's like a punk Mary Magdalene and they become a groovy flotilla of leather jacket Jesuses.

The success of PORKY'S the following year undid the progress and once again sex and boys were all girls were allowed to think about, but in 1979 they understood that rock and roll is a holy thing.


This is awesome because, without this kind of sublimation, the female adolescent fantasy cannot survive. Because of endless unwelcome pawing backstage, whole roads of exploration and rebellion are avoided by the wary girl traveler, and the result are movies about teenage girls that are mired in boytoy mirroring and anti-objectification/prurience dichotomies like LITTLE DARLINGS, FOXES, and FOXFIRE, where every man is abusive, groping, desperate, stalking, or a degenerate charmer out to steal their allowance. But not here, baby. The Ramones become Riff's surrogate beast of burden, the animus primely situated between the ponies of childhood and the sexual boyfriends of maturity. And they know it, and they're into it. Punk is their unified field. So what a joy to find this kind of thing in a rock film since, in addition to the issue of blowing up the school, letting underage high school girls around mature punk rocker skeeves would raise so many eyebrows in a few short years that the laws of self-fulfilling prophecy would take effect. Parents would protest a movie like this before it even came out, then secretly go see it and feel cheated when there's no gang bang. 


All that is great, but what finally unmoors the movie from traditional sex comedy orbit altogether is the wild frenetic anarchy of the all-ages punk rock show centerpiece of the film. Director Alan Arkush had worked as an usher for the Filmore so both this and his unjustly unavailable 1983 masterwork GET CRAZY have that real-life sense of being there, of being caught up in the excitement. His concerts reek of pot, cigarette, dry ice, and a thousand crushed-together perfumes, like real rock concerts smell. Hey! Hey! And the kids can come too, that's the important thing. The all-ages show is never taken lightly. I've been there and can ascertain, this is how it is/was. I saw many all-ages Ramones shows as a teenager and this one is ever better. Arkush sustains the excitement most concert films only touch on scattershot, and he builds it up, and then farther up.


Soles, who so often played best friends to final girls--goofy, strident, horny, and lacking the sense of insecurity and self-consciousness that would make her aware of approaching danger (such as in HALLOWEEN)--lets fly as Riff, unafraid to be infectiously goofball rather than sexy; she's great, and it's a crime it's her only lead role in any major film. Her little lithe body bouncing around covered in the bright shiny colors that had not yet come to signify the encroaching 1980s, her natural tendency to make funny faces, bugging her eyes out, tightening and pursing her thin lips, can't be dismissed as mugging since it's so perfectly apt for the age. Never adding more smarts than a normal teen would have, and twice as much heedless momentum, she's a tangle of sincerity, giggles, self-satire and genuine ferocity. I'd be scared to date her. But I'd want to be at parties she was at.


In short, PJ Soles rocks and if you have problems getting through the first bits of this movie, with ancient Og Oggleby as a school official in a boardroom and all the typical teen sexcom clownery, hold fast, go pour a drink, and then return to let the rock of the Ramones work its magic. You might end up as I did, bouncing around your living room to their protean punk and PJ's awesome bug-eyed purity while your flatmates look at you with quiet annoyance. But hey, Riff's got a chainsaw with their name on it.



Friday, June 24, 2011

A Plea for Badder Elderly


The recent pair of "Bad" movies - BAD TEACHER and VERY BAD BOSSES - gives me hope for the cinema future. I've not seen either, but I have seen my cinema nation gradually morph from something occasionally edgy into this weird saccharine sarcophagi, where the only bad guys are cardboard super villains whose daddies didn't love them enough, or ourselves.

Another thing is old people. Were no female actresses born in the 1950s so we can have them play crazy old bat lunatics, like Bette Davis in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? That film set the bar, then Roman Polanski made them even creepier with Ruth Gordon in ROSEMARY'S BABY. Many followed her lead and though none captured her Satanic inevitability and none the horror of realizing you're old like Davis, all tried their best, if they weren't too drunk. They smoked, told dirty jokes, fooled around with unwary grips and rocked films with names like WHO SLEW AUNTIE ROO, WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? and countful others--for awhile, in the late 60-early 70s, old people weren't tedious saints but terrifying spectres. Has there been any crazy old bats since these, from that golden rhinestone era? The era that brought us aging divas not only wrestling with impending mortality, but chewing its ear off and axing the referee in the crotch?


The problem with having a youth-obsessed pop culture for too many generations has become apparent in every empty gesture of our rom com heroines, every vacant slackjawed stare of our actors playing shaven hunks trying to maintain just-sex relationships with hotties from THE BLACK SWAN while their hairy bros tell dick jokes and wallow in a post-FREAKS AND GEEKS adolescence while the women comediennes roll their eyes and try to make the best of whatever few dumb lines they have. They're lacking substance, the substance that can only come from being made miserable by live-in relatives.

If they bothered to not only live with their parents but bring in the grandparents and all live under the same roof like families did in brownstones and Victorian 4-10 bedroom houses before the World War Two, then they'd actually see more old people, and on long enough a basis to be so creeped out they'd have to make movies about it. And forget Hollywood, where old people are all farmed off to Palm Springs, never to be seen again. The rest of us see the old ones on holidays when they are on their best behavior, and in hospitals when they're sucking our future social security up their IV tubes. Gimme that IV tube old lady! Have a Lark.

Don't blame me, a simple messenger, blame the pre-fab tract house suburbia boom that followed WW2. Soldiers came home from the war and balked at suddenly being expected to adhere to centuries-old curfews after three years of genital freedom. Since the rocket-pocket 1950s we've been bred to associate fleeing the nest with being the first step to true fun and freedom. It's only later, much later, that you get the bill for this luxury, and by then you're far too old to benefit from the lesson; you don't know how to act once you crest 30 because you live only with younger people. You haven't changed, it's just that now there's only one generation ahead of you, and more creeping behind you all the time, younger and younger... and ever more clueless with only the facts of the internet to guide them, and not the shaky logic and maddeningly repetitive and racist stories of their great grandparents.


I'd love to see, for example, a film about a crazy old lady who lures young men to her mansion then drugs them with sticky candy and makes them listen as she reads the bible, or kills them. But nooo, old people won't learn to use the internet, so we'll have to wait til my generation's old enough to crave company. Our actresses will be needing work once their plastic surgeons have finally said "finis! There is no more I can do." So maybe they'll be down for it. I know I am. Will BAD TEACHER lead to this crazy old axe murdering bat renaissance? If AA has taught me anything, it's no.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

DEATH AT LOVE HOUSE vs. The Destruction Company


A black magic-dabbling Hollywood star from the 1930s named Lorna Love (Marianna Hill) reaches from beyond the grave to fuck up a couple of married biographers in this priceless 1976 made-for-TV film. Kate Jackson and Robert Wagner play the couple. They move into Love's crumbling mansion (i.e. "Love House") to soak up the atmosphere and groove on her many mementos. With all the spooky stuff going on this book takes forever to get started. Instead of working, Wagner begins to drink and brood over the portrait of Lorna (painted by his own late father, cementing his connection to the subject) hanging in the study. He may as well be Vincent Price in a Corman Poe, since he's becoming possessed, and Lorna's beautiful corpse is even kept on display in a glass case out in the backyard as a shrine to her beauty and vanity. What chance does 'the smart one' of Charlie's Angels have against such a powerful REBECCA / LAURA / LIGEIA - ish ghost?


Kate is nonetheless sharp as always in her silk scarves and pants, straight black hair extra long; a smart sweater over collared shirt adds smart nerdy class to her beautiful and warm and nurturing and sweet soul. We feel her pain, then, as she's way too sweet to be deserve being menaced by a phantom in a pentagram-covered purple robe and no one believes her. Wagner thinks it's her imagination, but it's his that's out of control. As he drinks booze in the den, moons over the portrait and screens her old films over and over via a home projector on the wall, he starts having conveniently-timed gold-tinted hallucinations of ghostly Lorna whenever Kate's in danger upstairs. In the most awesome moment, Lorna comes to life in a slow mo gold-tinted mirage, smiling and calling his name from inside the film he's projecting! As someone who, as a child, believed he could make Kate Jackson fall in love with him if he stared hard enough at her pictures in Teen Beat, I caught the meta frisson from this scene, big time.

The more he drinks, the more Wagner gets rude, patronizing, and dismissive of Jackson's legitimate worry that someone is trying to kill her and has left a Satanic knife in her drawer and cut her face out of their author's photo. As Kate is so rational and intelligent you start to imagine what Charlie's Angels would be like if every suggestion, clue, or even event the Angels reported was dismissed by Bosley and Charlie as womanly hallucinations and hysterics. Ick, right? They'd need more than an hour to solve the case, that's for sure... or would they?


Anyway, despite all that, the pace is brisk and there's a whole cavalcade of pre-war Hollywood stars in cameos: John Carradine as Lorna's old Svengali-style director; Sylivia Sydney as the nicotine-voiced housekeeper; Joan Blondell a deranged fan and coven member; Dorothy Lamour, I forget what she does. And holding her own as the ghost / Lorna, a leggy tall blonde named Marianna Hill --who you may remember her as Fredo's rebellious strumpet of a wife in GODFATHER 2.


Being a confirmed sadomasochistic Charlie's Angels fan as a child in the 70s, writhing Sternberg-like on images of the Angels (and Cheryl Tiegs), you can imagine how I longed to see DEATH AT LOVE HOUSE, which was mentioned on occasion in TV Guide, along with the equally awesome sounding SATAN'S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS, both TVMs that came and went before I was aware of them due to my parent's strict bedtime laws. Their unavailability made imagining them all the sweeter; I desperately wanted a job at any school with a name like Love House or Satan's School for Girls. Hell, I'd even mop floors!

In the pre-Xerox, pre-video 70s, the only way to acquire pictures of your icons, you must remember, was to take them with a camera yourself, off the TV, or buy the magazines, trade them, or steal them. Only with great difficulty could you reprint them (in schools during the 70s, copies were done on mimeograph machines - all the print was in blue smudgy ink, and no ability to add photos to the mix). As for films, the best you could do was to get a super 8mm projector and buy little loops from the camera store. These loops had one or two key scenes from the film edited together and running maybe five or six minutes.

I mention that to stress the power of the image in that era, a power that proliferation in our current era has decreased. That inability to 'own' movies-- our lack of access --made images more sacred, more ephemeral in nature. There was no way my parents would let me stay up that late, at that age but I was far from tired at 9 PM... so I was forced to lie in bed in a prepubescent miasma, imagining Kate Jackson in all these ghostly, Satanic, and love-death situations. If I knew about how good booze in sufficient quantities would have made me feel, I'd have been drinking like Wagner.

 

Obsessive, morbidly image-obsessed pagans like me have had the last laugh with DVD and the internet--having nearly every film we ever imagined or read about available at our fingertips--but it's a devil's bargain. The unbearable surplus, the vast, the staggering force of ever-expanding internet sites, online books, streaming films, etc., saturates the eye to the point of numb despair, robbing us of our grand masochistic longing, decreasing the value of everything. Sooner or later, all our deepest fantasies end up in the $1.99 Used -- Very Good bin at Amazon.


So Lorna Love died, for there were no more worlds to conquer.  The center cannot hold and without that externalized desire, the subject implodes under its own horrid weight. Look at these recent revolting news stories about 'the Destruction Company' - where dumb rich kids need to pay someone else for the right to smash their own TV sets, and you see how universal availability forces the entitled child into a crisis of desire. The more stuff we have, the less it has value... and for the person who constructs their whole identity around ego and ownership this is a truth too horrible to face. The race is lost since you won before it began. So rather than go back and bet on Devout Non-Attachment in the Third, you just buy the horse that already lost the race and pay for the right to shoot it. Such suckers are what DEATH AT LOVE HOUSE is all about. Rather than admit they can't get their youth back, they try to stop time; to freeze themselves in amber; to go rigid in their glory rather than let go and flow in the current of anonymity, to relish the disillusionment that comes with attaining your desire in order to move into egolessness. Meanwhile, the aging stars from the golden era all show up as groundskeepers, collect their checks, and shamble off back into the shadows.


Of course, you can always pick your obsession more wisely - find something very hard to attain. Pine with me, then, for that legendary original edit of Orson Welles' MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942), yet to be unearthed in some Brazilian vault, if it even exists.

As you may know, Welles' finished an original cut of the film while in Rio for the war effort; his studio butchered it down to under two hours and dumped into theaters. Allegedly they used their own print and didn't touch his Rio copy, so maybe it's hidden somewhere in some Brazilian vault?   While the version that sometimes shows up on TCM seems boring and indulgent, and leading star Tim Holt plays a drab and uninteresting fop. I pine and long for the day when the original cut is found... that is my film geek grail.

But! Confident they'll never find it, I'm spared the anxiety of having to actually buy it for $39.99 on Criterion Blu-ray if it ever is found, and since I paid so much I'd have to endure all three hours of claustrophobic late 19th century sound and shadow. AMBERSONS is Welles' AMARCORD, his FANNY AND ALEXANDER, his STAND BY ME, but with the selfish rich brat who taunts Spanky in OUR GANG as the star, the type who would surely join 'The Destruction Company' so he could buy and then wail on Joe Cotten's prototype horseless carriage.

And what is that crazy translation of the serpent Baudelaire poetry Wagner's reading? We get a long look at the page in his book:

Kisses will I give thee, chill as the moon
and caresses shuddering and slow,
as a writhing serpent uncoiling a tomb.
Like angels with bright savage eyes
I will come treading phantom-wise
Hither where thou art wont to sleep
Amid the shadows hollow and deep.
Alas, the only DVD version of this film--or SATAN'S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS--comes from the odious Cheezy Flix DVD label. These rats release hard-to-find films on Public Domain multi-generational dupe-quality discs for premium prices and that's a disgrace! Have some respect!

Yet, perhaps that's for the best, again, for when desires are examined under a Blu-ray HD stethoscope, they tend to dissolve like million dollar ice sculptures in the fires of our hellish gaze. So at least we can still long for a 'better' edition of these two films, the way Wagner longs for Lorna, even if it means she has to come back from the grave, trailing blurry clouds of shuddering, slow serpents (uncoiling from the tomb) as she comes, shambling like a 'Very Poor (VP)' quality first printing of her own sad fanzine... hollering for her Usher, her acolytes, and sweet, sorry Fredo.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Netflix Streaming A-Z: D is for DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE (1971)


This 1971 Hammer film, long unavailable on DVD is the States, acts as a kind of HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN Victorian era all-star murderer cast, with the implication that the Jack the Ripper got started when Burke and Hare were lynched by an angry London mob, thus depriving Dr. Jekyll of fresh girl glands for his experiments in prolonging life.  Directed swiftly and smartly by Roy Ward Barker, it stars Ralph Bates as Jekyll, who reasons that in order to prolong his life, so he has time to cure all diseases in the world, it's okay to murder prostitutes for their glands, cutting them up so it's not easily apparent what organ he was after, Ripper-style.

But this movie has a cynical detachment from his struggle. We root for the result of his glandular tests since it means he gets a sex change and morps into the fabulous Mrs. Hyde, played by Martine Beswick, who at least is a cold, calculating sexy killer and not some deluded hypocrite with a yen to make it in the history books.



Martine Beswick was one of my dad's favorite science fiction actresses growing up. She was the hot Neanderthal rival of Raquel Welch in 1000 YEARS BC (1967). She was a hot CIA agent working with Bond in THUNDERBALL (1965). She tore it up as a bitchy queen in PREHISTORIC WOMEN. She was everywhere sexy British cinema needed to be. Her sexuality was robust and uninterested in flattering or teasing weak men. And woe to her girl rivals!

As Ms. Hyde, her astonishment at her awesome breasts during the first transformation is hilarious, reminiscent of Ellen Barkin's first scenes in SWITCH. And when s/he notices her hair's grown substantially longer in the few minutes of transformation you feel her conveying a slight comical mirth about the nature of fantasy, shrugging it off as the whims of her unseen director. Why bother explaining how one's hair can grow six inches in a matter of seconds? And be shiny, sexy, and well combed, make-up on perfectly? Drag queens who labor four hours to look pretty must be miffed at the ease with which pasty old Jekyll becomes this bombshell.


Adding to the all-Victorian splendor is a Nicholas and Kate Nickelby style family upstairs, with the elderly mom (Dorothy Allison) at the piano, and the hot sister Susan (Susan Brodrick), longing for the cold Jekyll while Nicholas-y Howard (Lewis Flander) longs for Hyde, who is "a widow," as Jekyll explains, passing his alter-ego off as his own sister! She gets a big Italian soap opera piano cue when she materializes, like it's love at first sight in the mirror. Meanwhile his professor mentor (Gerald Sim) who tells Jekyll "get a good woman and one day you'll look in the mirror and see a changed man." Rather than the hoped for lesbian seduction, Hyde's desire leaks over into Jekyll, resulting in Bates making a kind of unconscious pass at Howard. Right there, that's four stars. Netflix you rule!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

She was some kind of a Mushroom: GO ASK ALICE (1973)


It's a heavy trip, being addicted to 'drugs.' In the case of the 1973 TV movie version of the 'anonymous diary' GO ASK ALICE it's a mix of coke, uppers and downers, but mainly--weirdly enough--LSD. Moron says what, now? Do you know how hard I tried to be addicted to LSD in the 1980s? It's impossible. Those of us who pushed it wound up in many a detox, AA meeting, church pew, and psych ward, but there's nothing addictive about it, and the idea of junkies shaking and scratching as they turn tricks to pay for their next LSD hit is ridiculous. Heroin or speed or coke, sure. LSD and DMT are whole other ballparks, but these are clearly the drugs of choice in GO ASK ALICE. There's no mention of heroin, and when she's introduced to speed it's in pill form, which is the same thing as an upper, i.e. amphetamine, which she'd been taking long before that. So what the fuck?

the big money
I remember certain scenes from this film from when I saw it for an elementary school health class in the seventies: Alice (Jamie Smith-Jackson, who's excellent) in her cool hat, blowing off her nerdy high school friend to hang out with the cool kids; Alice and her druggie runaway friend on their knees in some twisted sadomasochistic game run by an older couple to make the girls beg for capsules of some drug, which I hope is not acid. Can you imagine wanting to do acid with leering adult perverts? Everyone seems like a leering adult pervert on acid, to begin with. God knows what they'd seem like after a 'mixed bag.'

For all that though, this sadist flashback scene has some extra heavy grotesque resonance, like a promo for a dark drive-in film ALICE's target audience was still too young to see. But as with the drug references it's very (intentionally?) muddled. What pill does the creepy sadist have in his hand? What sick game is he proposing in his muffled voice, and why does one girl lunge at him while another spins around and races into the other room screaming? The effect is unsettling - as if the film is deliberately trying to upset and confuse us while making the crimes depicted impossible to duplicate, scrambling the details to an almost surreal David Lynch-esque degree (Lynch's idea of the dark sex-and-drugs underbelly of TWIN PEAKS, for example, has a similar after school special-run-amok lack of logic).


And I remember the scene where she walks in on her boyfriend with his other  girlfriend or a boyfriend, and so steals his money and grabs a bus to San Francisco with her Kay Lenz-ish friend. And I remember her outburst at a drug counseling group when a fellow addict seems to be enjoying his tales of glue-sniffing just a little too much (and then he offers her something called "a mixed bag"). I have also thought about what she said in that scene at my first AA meetings. In fact, remembering this scene kept me out of AA for longer than it might have otherwise. The grainy TV movie image of her walking away triumphant from the myopic addict circle was my badge of resistance against AA's cult reputation. 

This time around, a mere 30 or so years later, seeing it again last night on DVD, what do I notice? The relentlessly awesome music. William Shatner's crazy falling-off moustache. And the deliberately vague, gray areas--the bait and switch way you can't tell if Alice walks in on her boyfriend with another woman... or a man? (see below) My fellow schoolmates argued over that for months!  Watching it now I can't help but think it's deliberate, to muddy the waters, to depict the druggie world as it must look in the brains of children or adults way on the outside, letting their fuzzy imagination run warm and weird.

What Alice Sees before leaving
What we see after Alice leaves
One area this ambiguity and deliberate fogging device works (to promote childhood playground discussion perhaps of what really happened?) is family dynamics: The parents are oblivious to how zonked the kids are at Alice's birthday party, and they even give them champagne. Later they prove blind to Alice's pain, and dismiss her real concerns about druggie reprisals (after she rats out a tweaked babysitter) with distracted speeches about standing up for oneself.

The result: someone doses her soft drink while babysitting (we're tipped to her being drugged when Traffic's "Dear Mr. Fantasy" starts playing on the soundtrack while she's still feeding the baby) and you know how the rumor goes about babysitting on acid. Alice locks herself up in a closet to resist the temptation (apparently always overwhelming in acidheaded 70s babysitters) to put the baby in the oven and the dinner in the crib. Luckily the lock holds on the closet. When she comes to her hands are all bandaged from trying to claw through, Poe-style.


But for all that--the parents aren't the bad guys, which is sooo 70s. Parents were expected to have their own lives, and help their kids best they can, but not become dicks about it, or get all micro-managing and helicoptery.

In the end Alice's trip to Wonderland here is too vaguely sketched not to draw a smirk when she's passed a soft drink at a party - and something else, with the kids around her chanting "button button - who's got the button?" as they put the white cap-like object in their mouths. The cap, I guess, was acid. Alice notes in the diary voiceover it was the first time she felt beautiful, once she let go and symbolically died, it's the first and last time her experience seems believable. That's what really happens! Alas, it's all downhill from there. Seconds later her new boyfriend calls, she goes running, starts doing coke just a few short scenes later and a few after that is 'hooked' on a regimen of her mom's tranquilizers and "mixed bags" -- uppers and downers -- (though not speed apparently, since she does that for the 'first time' later). The confusion over what drugs she's doing might not be in the book, but I wouldn't be surprised if it is. Not that I doubt the novel's authenticity, just that THIRTEEN did it better.
 

Oh yes. That really is Robert Carradine, above, as the sleazy druggie boyfriend. Allow it.


In the end, for all its vague twisting and avoiding the gritty details - GO ASK ALICE is fascinating only as a cultural touchstone seen by nearly everyone my age when we were kids, and that's enough to make it 'important' as a factor in the larger teen drug equation. It's the movie that taught us to fear psychedelics as much as heroin, coke, pot, etc. and in the process it taught us that adults like the ones who made the film knew less about drugs than we did. Yet ALICE still works - the performance from Jamie Smith-Jackson is spellbinding - she goes through so many changes so fast she barely seems like the same person from scene to scene (the closest comparison I can think of is De Niro's Travis Bickle), and there's no quick short happy ending, just one trial after another. But Alice endures, even thrives, finds herself... moving along - like the Airplane song goes, she is some kind of a mushroom, and so is the film surrounding her --both have adapted to endure and grow even in the mire of society's bullshit.

For if drugs were legal, she wouldn't be having these problems - that's the thing. If teachers just passed LSD out in health class, the evil kids wouldn't have any more power to seduce, hypnotize, and destroy. Until adults stop demonizing what they don't understand, hip kids will always be snickering jerks to them - but if the parents have the drugs, and the kids want some, then just watch them behave.


The thing is, if you take some acid and have a beautiful, spiritual experience, and you can't tell your parents because they'd just send you to rehab or call the cops, then the creeps who gave you the stuff become the only people you trust, who know the score, so when they say heroin and coke are even MORE beautiful, well the only thing holding you back are warnings from adults who would have warned you off LSD too. If you're taught to think all drugs are bad, then all drugs become good once you have even a single good experience.

I believe that if psychedelics and pot were legal a whole new shift in the drug war would take place and the scummy leeches like Alice's boyfriend would be down to just the nasty shit like crank and coke to make their living. But as long as you make spiritually transformative chemicals like DMT, psilocybe and LSD illegal it's like you're giving a bunch of sleazeball Manson-types the powers of Jesus and then wondering why no young people are snoozing through church and staying up all night to find God for themselves. Go ask Alice, I think she'll know... that you played yourself, America, in trusting the sneakiest, most unreliable drug dealer of all... the FD fuckin' A.